At Work in the Fields of the Lord

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Several key bills affecting farm workers are now pending before Congress. Perhaps the most important is a bill introduced in October and cosponsored by Senator Graham that would revamp the H-2A program. The legislation, optimistically entitled the "Agricultural Job Opportunity Benefits and Security Act of 1999," would no longer require farmers to provide housing to workers they bring in from overseas, and it would eliminate work guarantees for imported laborers. Perhaps most notably, the legislation would no longer require farmers to prove that there are no Americans available to perform the jobs for which they want to hire foreign workers -- the very stipulation that tripped up Thomas Brothers in its last attempt to use the H-2A program.

Another provision of the bill is aimed at the sticky issue of illegal immigrants. Acknowledging that a large number of farm workers are here without authorization, the legislation provides a means by which those laborers can legitimize their employment. Farm workers would have to prove that they had worked at least 180 days in each of five years over a seven-year period. Those who could do so would then be issued a green card to work legally in the United States.

Farm worker advocates note that it is extremely difficult for migrant workers to find 180 days of work in a year and that the laborers would be inordinately dependent upon their employers in order to meet the quota. The Farmworker Justice Fund, a national advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., likens the system to indentured servitude. It claims in an analysis of the bill that it would "indenture foreign workers to agriculture and suppress improvements in labor conditions for all farm workers."

John Thomas derides the notion that there is something wrong with requiring people to work a certain number of hours in a specific field of work in order to remain in the country. "They call that a contract," he says. Thomas notes that many of the descendants of people who came to this country as indentured servants centuries ago are now CEOs of corporations.

When it comes to the lawsuits, however, he assumes a more sympathetic tone. "When we walk away at the end of this, we just want everything to be right," he says.

On a late Friday afternoon in November, at a downtown Fort Lauderdale law firm, attorneys for Thomas Brothers Farms and the farm workers sat down to discuss the two lawsuits. It was a cordial meeting, with the normally irascible John Thomas leaving most of the talking to the attorneys. Thomas Brothers conceded that there were some legitimate problems, at least in the minimum wage case, and noted that the farm has already made some changes to ensure its workers earn at least minimum wage. The workers at the packinghouse have now been brought in-house, with their paychecks issued directly by the farm, cutting out the labor contractor middleman. In addition Thomas Brothers now regularly audits the payrolls of its farm labor contractors.

The cordiality broke down, however, as it almost always does in these matters, when the issue of money arose. According to Schell the figures tossed around at the meeting ranged from $300,000 to $1 million to dispose of the minimum wage suit. But Thomas Brothers claimed that the company can't afford that kind of money. Despite the family's numerous political contributions and thousands of acres of farms in two states, Hurricane Irene left them without enough resources to settle the lawsuits.

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."

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Paul Demko
Contact: Paul Demko