At Work in the Fields of the Lord

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In both of the present cases, the plaintiffs are suing both Thomas Brothers Farms and its farm labor contractors: Ramon Sanchez Enterprises in the case of the fired Haitian workers and a company variously called Cellular Labor Contracting or Cip & Rod Enterprises in the minimum wage case. Ramon Sanchez Enterprises did not respond to calls requesting comment for this story. The company's attorney, Don Boswell, also declined to answer questions about the case.

Sanchez has worked with Thomas Brothers for about two decades and is the farm's primary source of labor. According to The Palm Beach Post's 1998 analysis of the largest private companies in Palm Beach, Martin, and St. Lucie counties, Sanchez ranked 20th with 350 employees and annual revenues of $4,000,000.

Cellular Labor Contracting, through its attorney, Nemia Schulte, rejects all of the claims in the lawsuit. Schulte says that if there were problems with payment of overtime, Thomas Brothers is fully responsible because it kept track of the hours. She also claims that if the packinghouse workers were charged for transportation, it occurred without the knowledge of Cellular Labor Contracting. "If that was done, it was not under the authority of my client, nor did he benefit from it in any way," Schulte says. She further notes that the MFJP is trying to squeeze blood from a stone if it expects to get any money from her client. "Even if everything [they] say about my client is true, the fact is they're gonna get a settlement that's not worth anything," Schulte says. "He doesn't have any money."

The case involving the Haitian workers highlights another issue of longstanding contention between farmers and migrant workers: the so-called H-2A program, which allows farmers to import workers from foreign countries if they can prove there are no American workers available. Schell and others contend that the program amounts to indentured servitude. Farm owners can handpick workers from around the globe -- workers unlikely to question working conditions or pay. "It's an employer's dream," Schell says. "That's why they do it."

The H-2A program was a mainstay of the sugar cane industry in western Palm Beach County for years, providing thousands of seasonal Caribbean workers, who performed the brutal work of cutting cane by hand. It was also a lightning rod for litigation, brought by advocates who claimed workers were systematically cheated out of their wages. The lawsuits continue to be fought today, despite the mechanization of cane harvesting in the early '90s, which eliminated the need for most seasonal workers.

Florida vegetable growers rarely use the H-2A program. But in 1997 Thomas Brothers filed a request for foreign workers. "This is being done as a last resort," John Thomas told The Palm Beach Post at the time. When Thomas Brothers placed the required labor order with the state job office in Belle Glade, however, the agency came back with 125 Haitian women ready to work. Under the rules of the program, Thomas Brothers was essentially forced to hire the women. The jobs paid a guaranteed $6.36 an hour, according to the H-2A application, and the women were guaranteed wages for at least 30 hours a week, from October 1997 until June 1998.

Rather than honor that commitment, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit now charge, Thomas Brothers and Ramon Sanchez Enterprises shortchanged the workers on pay, then systematically purged them so that Mexican workers could be hired at minimum wage. "The whole game was to get rid of them," says Schell. "They were stuck in a deal they hadn't anticipated. They wanted to get out of it as quickly as possible."

When Hurricane Irene ripped through South Florida unexpectedly in October, leaving a swath of destruction diagonally across the state, John Thomas climbed in his truck and followed the storm up the turnpike. From Thomas' perspective, Irene seemed to take a route expressly designed to destroy as much of his fall crop as possible. "This was not a democratic storm," Thomas says. "It was a selective storm."

Perhaps Thomas believed that Hurricane Irene wouldn't have the gall to destroy his crops while he bore witness. But if that was his thinking, it proved to be in error: about 60 percent of the farm's Florida fall crop was destroyed, according to Thomas.

It is clear that John Thomas, despite nearing 80 years of age, takes an active interest in the goings-on of his farming operation. Sitting in a nondescript conference room on the second floor of one of the packinghouses along Clint Moore Road, he proudly notes that he hasn't had a vacation in three years. In overseeing his various farms in Palm Beach, Martin, Hendry, and St. Lucie counties -- about 13,000 acres in all -- Thomas puts 50,000 miles on his truck annually. He also makes several trips each year to western New York, just south of Buffalo, where the Thomas farming operation got its start around the turn of the century and where they still grow grain, strawberries, and corn.

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Paul Demko
Contact: Paul Demko