Bitter Sugar

Forget the awful past, Palm Beach's sugar barons say. It's time to make nicey-nicey and go into real estate.

In 1994, Circuit Judge Lucy Brown decided the case was so clear-cut that it didn't need to go to trial. She awarded the ex-workers $51 million. But an appeals court threw the judgment out, deciding that the cane cutters must sue each farm owner separately. Clewiston-based U.S. Sugar settled in 1998 for $5.7 million. The Fanjuls, meanwhile, beat the cane cutters in court, claiming they never paid less than what was promised in contracts signed by the workers. In a 1999 trial, a frustrated jury wrote to the judge that one of the Fanjuls' companies, Atlantic Sugar, didn't break the terms of the contract but they did treat workers unfairly. The company "consistently misrepresented" incentive programs in a "shameful" treatment of the workers, the jury wrote.

David Gorman, the attorney who spent 15 years trying the cases, says the Fanjul lawsuits failed because the juries couldn't grasp the complexities of the dispute. "These cases, it's really a shame," Gorman says from his North Palm Beach office, where four filing cabinets and a room of trial exhibits sit like a shrine. "The Fanjuls could've easily settled these lawsuits for what they spent defending it. It would've taken so little for them to do what they had promised, and for them, it would have been pennies."

The Fanjuls' alleged shortchanging of pay also extends to their office workers, according to a federal lawsuit filed in 2002 by an ex-employee. Suzanne Wolff of Boynton Beach, who worked in Florida Crystal's computer department, claimed in the suit that the Fanjuls regularly refused to pay overtime and cheated her out of 400 hours worth $10,964. Thanks to the sugar lobby's effect on U.S. labor laws, many of the industry's workers, like most farm laborers, cannot request overtime. But office workers are exempt from that rule, says attorney Cathleen Scott, who filed the suit. In July 2003, the Fanjuls settled the lawsuit for an undisclosed sum and forbade Wolff from speaking of it. Norman Davis, the Fanjuls' attorney on the case, says Wolff and others are covered by a "white collar" exception that precludes them from overtime. "The Fanjul family and their companies," Davis says, "comply with fair labor standards as much as anyone."

Jose "Pepe" Fanjul Jr.'s 1991 mugshot
Jose "Pepe" Fanjul Jr.'s 1991 mugshot

On October 18, 1991, a tragic accident again brought to light the harsh treatment of Fanjul workers. In early-morning darkness, a station wagon packed with seven Guatemalan workers on their way to a Fanjul farm in South Bay lost control. The car flipped into a canal, trapping the men inside. The men clawed at the doors and at one another trying to escape. Only one man survived. Six died in the murky water, including a 15-year-old boy who cut cane in the fields. The accident brought national attention to the Fanjuls for the poor safety conditions of workers transported to their fields, packed in privately owned buses, vans, and wagons. The Fanjuls' insurance company in 1999 agreed to pay the families of the drowned workers $5.6 million.

In 1993, the Fanjuls found a way to eliminate many of the complaints over bad pay and their poor record on safety. That year, they automated the sugar harvest, laying off a large portion of the work force. In an instant, the Fanjuls devastated the agriculture-driven towns of western Palm Beach County. Apartment buildings and camps that once held workers now sit abandoned and boarded. It's easy to find former Fanjul workers in Belle Glade. On a recent afternoon, three sat on milk crates in a part of town called "The Hole," where abandoned buildings seem to outnumber occupied ones. Ernest Robinson drove a bus that took cane cutters to work before the Fanjuls automated the harvest. "When I'd pick them up at the end of the day, it looked like somebody beat them up with charcoal," recalls Robinson, who now drives a milk delivery truck. "I don't know how they did it. They looked like a chain gang, the way they worked 'em."

Leaning on the bed of a pickup nearby, Lamont Oliver remembers when a Fanjul recruiter hired him on the impoverished island of St. Vincent in 1986. The job came with the promise of decent pay for just a few months of work, but it came with a price. "From the first day, everybody wanted to quit, but we didn't have no way out," Oliver says. "They brought us here, and they won't send you home until you finished cutting." Now a roofer and 56 years old, Oliver says workers often left the fields crippled. The work required them to bend over while swinging a machete into the cane stalks. Workers often missed, the massive knives landing instead into their feet or shins. Oliver still owns the metal shin guard he wore, with dents and dings in every inch from where he nearly cut himself. Every worker knew, Oliver recalls somberly, that an injury would mean no pay and a one-way ticket back home to poverty, care of the Fanjuls. "I came out all right in the end. I didn't lose no fingers or no toes," Oliver says with pride. "Some of those men, they didn't do so good. They say the cane took 'em, because it did."

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