Sunrise Labor Accused of Brutal Practices Against Migrant Workers: Four Horrific Allegations

The sugar-cane fields of Belle Glade have long been a stopover for migrant workers who earn measly wages in exchange for weeks of backbreaking labor in oppressive conditions.

A new lawsuit filed against Cape Coral-based Sunrise Labor Corp. provides a detailed portrait of physical and psychological abuse of migrant workers, from allegations of sexual abuse to a gun-toting boss. 

The four plaintiffs, identified only as John Doe I-IV, claim that Sunrise Labor employees Salvador Hernandez, Francisco Hernandez, and Claudia Hernandez smuggled migrant workers into the U.S. for a fee, then shuttled the workers around to sites in Florida, New York, Georgia, Mississippi, and Illinois. 

State records show that Sunrise Labor was established by Russell Reaves, who was involved in setting up companies named Fast Cash, Employer Employee Services, Affilliate Employee Services, and YCO & Associates. At least four businesses under Reaves had their files with the Division of Corporations revoked for problems surrounding annual reports. 

The lawsuit claims that Salvador Hernandez and the other bosses often refused to pay workers, claiming that the migrant employees were indebted to Sunrise Labor. Hernandez often brandished a gun on payday and would walk the fields shooting animals as a means of intimidation. 

In Belle Glade, the migrant workers were stuffed into rat-infested boarding houses and charged $100. In Georgia, there were 25 workers living in a four-bedroom house. 

The lawsuit also alleges that after finding out of John Does I and II's sexual orientation, Sunrise Labor employees "instigated physical and mental assaults" from other migrant workers that culminated in farm workers' "sexually assaulting and physically and mentally abusing John Does I and II.

Rather than rattle off the insanity allegedly perpetrated by Sunrise Labor, here are a few excerpts directly from the lawsuit: 

Abusive, Gun-toting Boss:

Defendant SALVADOR HERNANDEZ often distributed Plaintiffs' and other migrant farmworkers' wages while holding a handgun in his lap.

To ensure that workers continued to work at a brutal pace, Defendant SALVADOR HERNANDEZ carried and brandished a handgun as he paced the fields where Plaintiffs and other migrant farmworkers worked.  At times, to intimidate Plaintiffs and other migrant farmworkers, he shot birds and other objects located in the fields with the handgun.

As a result of Defendant SALVADOR HERNANDEZ'S threats to other migrant farmworkers and brandishing of his handgun, Plaintiffs felt they had no choice but to work under harsh conditions, and continued to do so despite illness, fatigue, injury, or ill effects from the heat.

Sexual Abuse:

Beginning Summer 2006 and continuing through Fall 2009, Defendants SALVADOR HERNANDEZ, FRANCISCO HERNANDEZ, and CLAUDIA HERNANDEZ began making threats of violence and repeated, obscene, offensive, and discriminatory jokes concerning the sexual orientation of John Does I and II and others in the presence of other migrant farmworkers

Due to the instigation of Defendants SALVADOR HERNANDEZ, FRANCISCO HERNANDEZ, and CLAUDIA HERNANDEZ, migrant farmworkers began sexually assaulting and physically and mentally abusing John Does I and II

Due to the instigation of Defendants SALVADOR HERNANDEZ, FRANCISCO HERNANDEZ, and CLAUDIA HERNANDEZ, in King Ferry, New York, migrant farmworkers used a rifle belonging to Defendant SALVADOR HERNANDEZ to mentally abuse John Doe II

When told of the sexual assaults and physical and mental abuse, Defendants 
SALVADOR HERNANDEZ, FRANCISCO HERNANDEZ, and CLAUDIA HERNANDEZ treated the events as a joke; made obscene, offensive, and discriminatory jokes concerning the events; denied John Does I and II medical treatment; and threatened to call ICE.  

Dangerous Housing:

In Belle Glade, Florida, Defendants housed John Does II, III, and IV in isolated, overcrowded, and unsanitary conditions.  Housing consisted of two-bedroom trailers that housed between ten and twelve migrant farmworkers. The trailers suffered rodent and insect infestations, holes in the roofs and floors, and non-functioning bathrooms.

Defendants charged John Does II, III, and IV varying amounts of at least $100 per month as purported "rent" for this housing which Defendants unlawfully withheld from the wages paid to John Does II, III, and IV.

In Bainbridge, Georgia, John Doe II was housed in a four-bedroom house with  approximately 25 other workers; he was forced to sleep on the floor.  The bathroom was unsanitary and the house did not have a functioning refrigerator.

After John Does I, II, and III left the employ of Defendant SUNRISE LABOR, 
Defendants SALVADOR HERNANDEZ, FRANCISCO HERNANDEZ, and CLAUDIA HERNANDEZ threatened the lives of John Does I, II, and III such that John Does I, II, and III fear for their lives and the lives of their families.

On at least one occasion, Defendant SALVADOR HERNANDEZ threatened to 
hire someone to beat up or kill a migrant farmworker that had fallen ill.

Additionally, after John Doe II sought required medical treatment after a physical assault, Defendant SALVADOR HERNANDEZ placed John Doe II in additional physical danger by informing the migrant farmworkers that John Doe II was to blame if ICE began deporting them.

KEEP NEW TIMES BROWARD-PALM BEACH FREE... Since we started New Times Broward-Palm Beach, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of South Florida, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Chris Sweeney