From Bitter to Sweet

Forget the awful past, say Alfonso and Pepe Fanjul, Florida's sugar barons. It's time to make nice and go into real estate.

The U.S. Department of Labor under President Reagan investigated the Fanjuls' company after the Dog War incident and found that it shorted workers regularly. The investigation then triggered a flood of lawsuits from ex-workers. "They paid the lowest wages of any of the sugar farms, and that resulted in widespread underpayment of workers," says Schell, the farm workers' attorney. "They partook in a systematic falsification of payroll records to cover this up." Former cane cutters banded together in the early Nineties to sue the Fanjuls and other sugar barons. They claimed the Fanjuls promised them $5.30 per ton of cane but instead paid about $3.00 to $3.50 a ton. Former supervisors who kept track of the wages for workers claim the Fanjuls and others ordered them to falsify the records, Schell says. "Superman couldn't cut enough cane" to meet the Fanjuls' quota, Schell says.

In 1994 Circuit Judge Lucy Brown decided the case was so clear-cut it didn't need to go to trial. In a summary judgment, she awarded the ex-workers $51 million. But an appeals court threw out the judgment, ruling that the cane cutters must sue each farm owner separately. Clewiston-based U.S. Sugar settled in 1998 for $5.7 million. The Fanjuls, meanwhile, beat the cane cutters in court, claiming they never paid less than what was promised in contracts signed by the workers. In a 1999 trial, a frustrated jury wrote to the judge that one of the Fanjuls' companies, Atlantic Sugar, didn't break the terms of the contract but they did treat workers unfairly. The company "consistently misrepresented" incentive programs in a "shameful" treatment of the workers, the jury wrote.

David Gorman, the attorney who spent fifteen years trying the cases, says the Fanjul lawsuits failed because the juries couldn't grasp the complexities of the dispute. "These cases, it's really a shame," Gorman says from his North Palm Beach office, where four filing cabinets and a room of trial exhibits sit like a shrine. "The Fanjuls could've easily settled these lawsuits for what they spent defending it. It would've taken so little for them to do what they had promised, and for them, it would have been pennies."

José "Pepe" Fanjul, Jr., after his 1991 arrest
Colby Katz
José "Pepe" Fanjul, Jr., after his 1991 arrest

The Fanjuls' alleged shortchanging of pay also extends to their office workers, according to a federal lawsuit filed in 2002 by an ex-employee. Suzanne Wolff of Boynton Beach, who worked in Florida Crystal's computer department, claimed in the suit that the Fanjuls regularly refused to pay overtime and cheated her out of 400 hours' work worth $10,964. Thanks to the sugar lobby's effect on U.S. labor laws, many of the industry's workers, like most farm laborers, cannot request overtime. But office workers are exempt from that rule, says attorney Cathleen Scott, who filed the suit. In July 2003, the Fanjuls settled the lawsuit for an undisclosed sum and forbade Wolff from speaking of it. Norman Davis, the Fanjuls' attorney on the case, says Wolff and others are covered by a "white collar" exception that precludes them from overtime. "The Fanjul family and their companies," Davis says, "comply with fair labor standards as much as anyone."

On October 18, 1991, a tragic accident again brought to light the harsh treatment of Fanjul workers. In the early-morning darkness, a station wagon packed with seven Guatemalan workers on their way to a Fanjul farm outside the town of South Bay lost control. The car flipped into a canal, trapping the men inside. They clawed at the doors and at one another trying to escape. Only one man survived. Six died in the murky water, including a fifteen-year-old boy who cut cane in the fields. The accident brought national attention to the Fanjuls for the poor safety conditions of workers transported to their fields, packed in privately owned buses, vans, and wagons. The Fanjuls' insurance company in 1999 agreed to pay the families of the drowned workers $5.6 million.

In 1993 the Fanjuls found a way to eliminate many of the complaints over bad pay and their poor record on safety. That year they automated the sugar harvest, eliminating a large portion of the work force. In an instant, the Fanjuls devastated the agriculture-driven towns of western Palm Beach County. Apartment buildings and camps that once held workers now sit abandoned and boarded. It's easy to find former Fanjul workers in Belle Glade. On a recent afternoon, three of them sat on milk crates in a part of town called The Hole, where abandoned buildings seem to outnumber occupied ones.

Ernest Robinson used to drive a bus that took cane cutters to work. "When I'd pick them up at the end of the day, it looked like somebody beat them up with charcoal," recalls Robinson, who now drives a milk delivery truck. "I don't know how they did it. They looked like a chain gang, the way they worked 'em."

Leaning on the bed of a pickup nearby, Lamont Oliver remembers when a Fanjul recruiter hired him on the impoverished island of St. Vincent in 1986. The job was offered with the promise of decent pay for just a few months of work, but it came with a price. "From the first day, everybody wanted to quit, but we didn't have no way out," Oliver says. "They brought us here, and they won't send you home until you finished cutting." Now a roofer and 56 years old, Oliver says workers often left the fields crippled. The work required them to bend over while swinging a machete into the cane stalks. Cutters often missed, the machetes landing instead on their feet or shins. Oliver still owns the metal shin guard he wore, riddled with dents and dings from where he nearly cut himself. Every worker knew, Oliver recalls somberly, that an injury would mean no pay and a one-way ticket back home to poverty, care of the Fanjuls. "I came out all right in the end. I didn't lose no fingers or no toes," Oliver says with pride. "Some of those men, they didn't do so good. They say the cane took 'em, because it did."

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