At Work in the Fields of the Lord

Long hours. Low pay. Hardly any rights. It's the life of Palm Beach County's hidden underclass: migrant farm workers.

Schell, naturally, was skeptical, and he asked to see the company's books. Thomas Brothers has yet to oblige. "They haven't done anything," Schell says now. "This was all blowing smoke on their part."

The tone of the meeting also soured, according to Schell, when the case of the Haitian women came up. He says that Thomas bristled when Schell suggested he rehire the women in the lawsuit, as well as the handful of Haitian women who lasted the entire season. "They were good enough to work for you a whole season," Schell recalls saying. "You told them you'd bring them back. You never brought them back. And instead you hired Ramon Sanchez to hire illegal aliens."

Despite the failure of this initial meeting to produce a settlement, it seems likely that both cases will eventually be disposed of before ever making it to trial. Neither of the parties involved seems particularly interested in a protracted battle. Schell says he believes that Thomas Brothers will lean on Ramon Sanchez to cough up some money to clear up the case involving the Haitian women. "I'm guessing Thomas will tell Sanchez, 'Take care of it,' and Sanchez will come up with some money."

John Thomas has presided over the family farming business in Palm Beach County for more than four decades
Melissa Jones
John Thomas has presided over the family farming business in Palm Beach County for more than four decades

It seems unlikely, however, that the suits will solve the fundamental problems that render the abuse of farm workers in Palm Beach County routine. At most they could provide a nudge toward improving working conditions. Schell believes that the only way significant changes will take hold, in the long run, is to force farmers to abandon their use of labor contractors. "We want farmers to take responsibility for their workers, and I would say that message is slowly but surely being received," he says.

The bleak reality for the 25 Haitian women suing their former employer is that their case will probably make little difference in their lives. Whether the suit is settled for $500,000 or for nothing at all, in the end, the only way they're going to improve their lives is by finding better-paying jobs. More than a year after the contract with Thomas Brothers expired, many of the women remain unemployed.

Christine Cadet is one exception. These days the unmarried mother of two regards her stint with Thomas Brothers as a bit of absurd theater more than anything else. She maintains that she was only making $25 or $30 a day working for the company, despite the contract specifying that she would get at least $6.36 an hour. The main problem, she says, was that the fields the Haitians were given to pick had already been combed over by other crews of workers. The vegetables were few and far between, Cadet says, echoing the statements of others -- and her paychecks were correspondingly small.

"They tried to fire all the Haitians and get Mexicans," she adds. Cadet recalls being out in the field one day picking tomatoes. When a crew of Mexican workers showed up, the women were told to leave. She laughs at the memory, though the anecdote hardly seems humorous.

Cadet lasted longer as an employee of Thomas Brothers than Marie Nonombre and many of the other Haitian women. She worked in the fields from October until February, when she too was fired. For what? Cadet says she hasn't the slightest idea.

She is not holding her breath waiting for Ramon Sanchez or Thomas Brothers to cough up some money. Cadet traveled to Georgia earlier this year to pick sweet corn and recently got a job around Belle Glade working in sugar cane. "It's three times better than Thomas," she says. "Where I work now I can earn some money."

Contact Paul Demko at his e-mail address:

paul.demko@newtimesbpb.com

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