At Work in the Fields of the Lord

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Despite a law degree from Harvard University, Schell is the antithesis of the corporate lawyers he often squares off against in court. His predilection is for beltless blue jeans that have not yet begun to fade, wrinkled, short-sleeve shirts, and Nike running shoes. His pallid skin, disheveled hair, and belly suggest a man who spends too many late nights in his office dining on takeout food.

Schell grew up on a wheat farm in eastern Washington state, where his family sometimes employed migrant workers, and he has devoted his entire post-law-school life to protecting the rights of those same laborers. He initially moved to Immokalee after hearing a speaker at Harvard tell of the Third World conditions in the area. With the exception of a five-year stint defending farm laborers on the Eastern Shores of Maryland and Virginia ("Virginia is awful; it deserves to be paved over, really," Schell says), he's spent the last two decades in the Glades region, first in Immokalee, and for the last 11 years in Belle Glade. In the 1998 book, With These Hands: The Hidden World of Migrant Farmworkers Today, author Daniel Rothenberg notes that Schell is famously despised by farmers and their attorneys up and down the East Coast.

"We want them to know that if they screw up, we're gonna go get them," Schell says of the farmers. "Maybe we won't hear about it right away. But if they screw up long enough, we're gonna find out about it, and we will vigorously pursue the cases."

Beyond the moral imperative that drives Schell's work, it's evident he gets a kick out of what he calls the "David and Goliath" aspect. The MFJP has just four lawyers (two of whom are temporary employees paid through fellowships) but often does battle against multimillion-dollar corporations. "We're up against the biggest firms, with lots of hotshot lawyers, and we win most of the time," Schell boasts. "And that's ego. Because you're not getting bucks, you have to get something of value."

Schell, whose wife is a onetime migrant worker originally from Mexico, helped start the MFJP three years ago, after Congress passed a law forbidding groups that receive government funds from representing illegal immigrants and from bringing class-action lawsuits -- two staples of migrant farm worker legal battles. (Florida Rural Legal Services, where Schell previously worked, was one such group.) Virtually all of MFJP's funding comes through the Florida Bar, leaving it free of government meddling. In the absence of unions and stringent government enforcement of labor laws, the MFJP often serves as the only line of defense for the most disenfranchised workers.

The two cases pending against Thomas Brothers deal with issues that Schell and other lawyers for migrant farm workers have been litigating for years. "The Haitian-women case is unusual only because a farmer employed legal foreign workers, which is very unusual in this area," he says.

In recent years Schell has devoted much of his time to legally establishing that farmers who hire labor contractors to recruit workers are "joint employers" of the farm workers -- and therefore responsible for how the laborers are treated. The distinction sounds mundane. But it's crucial, because labor contractors are often fly-by-night operations with few resources. If the plaintiffs who Schell represents are going to recoup any money at all, in most cases it must come from the farmers themselves.

For decades farmers have relied on labor contractors as middlemen to recruit farm workers. The men and women who pick the bell peppers grown in Thomas Brothers' fields receive their paychecks not from the farm but directly from Ramon Sanchez or another contractor. Farmers argue that the system is necessary because of the seasonal nature of farm work. Companies require hundreds of workers when a crop is being harvested but have no use for them the rest of the year. Because few farm workers speak English, labor contractors also help bridge the language gap.

But Schell and others have argued for years that the use of farm labor contractors is an antiquated system that serves no other purpose than to provide legal cover to farmers when their workers are mistreated. "[Farmers] don't care what the labor contractors are doing, and it's not fair," says Tirso Moreno, general coordinator for the Farmworker Association of Florida. "They're the owners of the product, and they should be liable. We don't feel that the labor-contracting system should exist."

Philip Martin, a professor of agricultural economics at the University of California at Davis and the author of numerous books about migrant workers, refers to labor contractors as "risk absorbers, shock absorbers. Many of them are willing to accept the responsibility for labor law and immigration violations." Thus, conveniently, removing the onus from the farmer.

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Paul Demko
Contact: Paul Demko