Ignored and Cheated

Farm workers earn nada in America's green bean capital.

It's the height of winter harvest season in the southern reaches of Miami-Dade County. Turkey vultures swoop overhead, their sable wings lifted by winds redolent of damp grass.

Hundreds of mostly Haitian bean pickers dot the leafy, rustling fields off SW 296th Street west of Krome Avenue one January morning around 11. Straw hats and bonnets fit for an Easter service shade elderly women whose skin is wrinkled by life and sun. Some sing softly in Kreyol. Patched aprons, flannels, and housedresses mismatched with sweatpants cover every window of skin.

Middle-age men and women in dusty sneakers sit on milk crates that scrape against the rocky soil. They strip the sweet pods and then scoot forward to the next plant. A young woman, her head covered with a bandanna, waddles down a bean row holding her lower back to support her pregnant belly. An ambitious, lithe young man drops to his knees to pick faster.

Two elderly Haitian bean pickers park their milk crates next to each other while they toil. Crews are often filled with graying workers.
Janine Zeitlin
Two elderly Haitian bean pickers park their milk crates next to each other while they toil. Crews are often filled with graying workers.

At the edge of the field, Joseph Fisteac, a bald, portly bean crew boss in tan boots and black jeans leans against a pistachio-colored 1994 school bus with bare tires and a busted back window. He uses it to shuttle crews from Miami to the farm country around Homestead. Scowling, the 57-year-old looks out on the workers. He barks at them in Kreyol and then turns to an observer, swearing he doesn't cheat the workers: "I don't give you a lie."

But this is difficult to believe. Fisteac, whose face glistens with sweat, has been cited several times in the past decade for not paying Social Security taxes, working without a contractor's license, and illegally shuttling workers to fields. Last year the state fined him $10,000 for using a van with bald tires and nonworking lights that wasn't insured to carry workers. He also failed to keep payroll records. His license was temporarily suspended. "I'm not a bad man," he says.

Soon George Wright, a bespectacled grower in a blue plaid shirt employing Fisteac, rolls into the field in a shiny white Ford pickup. He leans out the window and brushes his palms together with concern. "If he has done anything wrong," he drawls, referring to Fisteac, "I'm done."

Miami-Dade County is the snap bean capital of America, harvesting 18,000 of the state's 33,000 acres of the long, stringy legume. The roughly 80 bean farms here earn the largest slice of the $141.8 million and 272.7 million pounds reaped in fresh beans statewide — and Florida ranks at the top nationwide in production, acreage, and value. Most of the crop is exported to the north and Canada.

In recent months, the broken, lawless state of bean picking has spawned federal investigations into unfair labor practices and extortion. Two lawsuits filed in recent months charge workers are paid less than minimum wage; one suit asserts they are poorly insured. And community leaders have loudly complained the workers' lives are at risk. "The crew leaders pay the fine," says Arturo Lopez, who heads the Coalition of Florida Farmworker Organizations, based in Florida City. "Then they continue to [break the law]."

An investigation of the industry conducted by New Times and aided by the nonprofit Migrant Farmworker Justice Project turned up the following problems:

• Bean crew leaders were cited for violating state farm labor laws 166 times, according to records from 2003 to 2006. Infractions included cheating on taxes, not keeping payroll records, failing to pay workers' compensation, and using uninsured vehicles.

• Nearly two-thirds of Miami-Dade farm labor citations in 2007 involved bean bosses. None involved growers, who often make the bulk of the profit but by state law are never fined. Infractions included failure to show payroll records, unsafe vehicles, and unclean conditions.

• Pickers have earned as little as $100 a week, or about $2 per hour if working a 40-hour week, while bean bosses can bring in 50 times that, or $5,000 a week, agricultural officials estimate.

• Despite rising unemployment that has reached four percent, hundreds of bean pickers have been imported to Miami under a special visa program backed by President Bush. Those workers are to be paid $8.56 per hour and about $2 more than minimum wage.

"The green-bean industry is a disaster," says Greg Schell, the Justice Project's managing attorney and a longtime advocate who filed one of the two recent suits for pickers. "It's one of the worst minimum-wage situations in Florida agriculture and it deserves attention."

Bruce Dunn's barn matches the green hue of the vegetable he grows. The building is tucked in the fields along SW 256th Street in rural South Allapattah, where white herons soar and palm trees sway as cars rumble by.

Dunn, who is 57 years old and wears silver-framed glasses, sits in a small, air-conditioned office in the barn on an early February afternoon. He speaks gently with vocalized footnotes, suggesting he's the type who does things assiduously. Green beans are 90 percent of his business, he explains. He leases 600 acres that are harvested twice a year. His farm and bean-packing house employ about 30 people.

He won't divulge his profit but says it's less than 10 percent of the cost to grow beans and about equals the salary of his architect son. "Farming is a lifestyle," he says. "A farmer handles a lot of money but he doesn't keep a lot."

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