Thomas has an easy smile, gravelly voice, and an aw-shucks manner. The image he projects is more Norman Rockwell than corporate baron. By 6 a.m. each day, he's at the breakfast table with two bowls of Total cereal and 16 ounces of orange juice. "When I leave the house in the morning, I am fortified," he says. Thomas portrays the operation as a family farm: his seven children all work in the business.
Despite his rigorous oversight of the farm, when the subject turns to labor problems, the septuagenarian farmer pleads folksy ignorance. In Thomas' eyes, the current MFJP lawsuits are as much beyond his control as Hurricane Irene. He puts the blame for any problem on the labor contractors, also known as crew leaders, who Thomas employs. "I think we're clean as a whistle on our part," he says. "We were sitting back here doing everything right. Then this crew-leader thing dropped in on us."
Thomas characterizes himself as a benevolent employer, providing opportunities to hundreds of marginalized people who otherwise have few economic options. "The true story of what goes on in our fields is a lousy story, because it's not sensational," he says.
This is not the first time that labor problems have dogged Thomas, though. The company's compliance history with the Department of Labor is several inches thick. In 1987, for instance, an investigation found that Thomas Brothers and its farm labor contractor were charging workers in their tomato packinghouse money for transportation, thus bringing their compensation below the minimum wage -- exactly the accusation that is being leveled against them today. In 1989, 1992, 1994, and again this year, Thomas was fined for utilizing the services of an unlicensed farm labor contractor. Another inquiry in 1993 cited Thomas Brothers for numerous violations relating to transportation of farm workers, such as failing to provide a safe vehicle or to obtain insurance. Earlier this year an investigation of two housing facilities along State Road 7 operated by Thomas Brothers and Ramon Sanchez found unsanitary toilets and a host of other minor problems such as overcrowding and broken windows.
Ramon Sanchez has a similarly long history of government investigations. Most notably, in March 1996 a crew of Sanchez's laborers got in an automobile accident in Hendry County while on their way to work. One of the occupants told investigators that she was only 15 years old when she began working for Sanchez -- a potential violation of child-labor laws. The woman, an illegal Mexican immigrant, testified in a sworn statement that she knew of six other workers who were underage and that there was no effort by Sanchez to verify that employees were old enough to work. The woman told investigators that someone from Sanchez's company visited her home and warned her to keep quiet or they would turn her over to the Immigration and Naturalization Service. According to a 1996 review by the Florida Department of Labor and Employment Security, 75 percent of Sanchez's employees did not have valid social security numbers. Despite this abundance of evidence, the investigation was closed in June 1996 without any disciplinary action.
Both Thomas Brothers and Ramon Sanchez Enterprises have been fined repeatedly over the years for violations, with assessments ranging from $500 to $4900, but the penalties seem to have had little effect on their employment practices.
Philip Martin, the University of California at Davis professor, cautions that a long list of labor violations does not necessarily mean that Thomas Brothers is deliberately mistreating workers. "The farm labor market is one of the most regulated labor markets, therefore there's a high level of violations," he says. "Even at so-called 'good farms.'"
Rather than alter its employment practices to comply with those stringent regulations, Thomas Brothers, like many large farms, has often concentrated its resources on overhauling the country's labor laws. While John Thomas may revel in the role of the folksy farmer, he is far from unsophisticated when it comes to getting what he wants. When the subject turns to politics, Thomas and his son Stephen are all smiles, rattling off a list of power brokers who they have the ear of. "I could show you pictures of me with Senator Graham and his daughters," Thomas says, speaking of the man whose name has been tossed around as a candidate for vice president.
"We've had just one-on-one lunches with Governor Bush," adds Stephen Thomas.
There's a good (and obvious) reason why bigwig politicians find time to meet with the Thomases: money. According to Federal Election Commission records, members of the Thomas family have given at least $38,550 to national political campaigns since 1994. Senator Graham, a Democrat, has received a total of at least $8000 from six different members of the Thomas clan. The leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, Texas governor George W. Bush, has already received $4000 from the Boca Raton farmers.