Ignored and Cheated

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

Dunn wears a checked black-and-white shirt and yellow construction boots. He's never been one for suits, he says. From this spot, Dunn's grandfather and father — long ago buried, but present in photos on the walls — used to run the farm. His granddad, Charles Dunn Sr., a Georgia tobacco farmer, headed south to Dade County in the Thirties, when mosquitoes were so thick he wore double khaki shirts for protection. (Dunn says his skin is so tough he doesn't even feel them bite.)

The Dunn family lived in Miami and commuted to South Dade to grow lettuce, cabbage, and collards that were sold at a farmers' market in the city. His father later planted potatoes and turnips. Early on, Bruce knew he wanted to be a farmer. He started driving a tractor around age eight. "Dad wanted me to do everything but farm," Dunn says. "But I liked being here more than any place else."

His father began cultivating beans in the Seventies, starting with the pole variety and moving on to snap beans. The name comes from the twiny material snapped before cooking.

Joseph Fisteac, a bean crew leader with a history of lawbreaking, leans against a bus used to shuttle pickers from urban Miami to Homestead and Florida City. He doles out tickets to workers for the beans they pluck.
Janine Zeitlin
Joseph Fisteac, a bean crew leader with a history of lawbreaking, leans against a bus used to shuttle pickers from urban Miami to Homestead and Florida City. He doles out tickets to workers for the beans they pluck.
Claircina Sinois (below left) is 71 years old. She is one of the more than 1,000 workers whom Greg Schell (below right), a lawyer with the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project, alleges were paid below living wages in bean fields farmed by John Torrese and two of his companies.
Janine Zeitlin
Claircina Sinois (below left) is 71 years old. She is one of the more than 1,000 workers whom Greg Schell (below right), a lawyer with the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project, alleges were paid below living wages in bean fields farmed by John Torrese and two of his companies.

The Dunns hired mostly African-American crews until the late Seventies, when Haitians began arriving in droves to seek better lives and escape the political violence engendered by President François "Papa Doc" Duvalier and his son, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc." "That's when life got interesting," Dunn says.

A devout Nazarene Christian, he recalls feeling embarrassed when female pickers stripped off their dusty shirts at day's end and doused themselves with water before changing into dress clothes. He quickly learned to stay away at that time.

He admired the pickers' strong work ethic and learned a few Kreyol phrases to dissuade them from mixing rocks with the crop to increase the weight and their profit.

The workers seemed happy, he recalls. He left dealing with them to Kreyol-speaking bosses and didn't muck with the details. He never questioned whether they were paying minimum wage, at the time around $3 per hour. Each day Dunn gave a lump sum to a crew leader, who then doled out wages. The arrangement seemed to work, he says.

But sometime in the Eighties, the Department of Labor told him salaries were too low. It wasn't fair, he says. Even slow pickers — people who garnered only three boxes a day — were supposed to earn at least minimum wage. "[It's wrong to] penalize me for working a slow person," Dunn says. "The Department of Labor had a different opinion."

Dunn says the farm workers sued him around the same time. They eventually settled, though he won't disclose terms or details of the suit. Soon he began harvesting all beans with machines. "I settled up and I told my dad: 'This is it. We are not going to handpick ever again because how can I be responsible for a person from the time he gets on the bus in the morning until the time he gets off at night?'" Dunn recalls. "The labor issues put me out of it. I don't think it's worth the risk."

Of course, Dunn probably lost some money by making that decision. These days hand-plucked beans go for about $33 per bushel, while machine-reaped ones — which are sometimes bruised or otherwise damaged — carry a $31 price tag.

Development and environmental concerns have squeezed him too. He lost nearly 300 leased acres when an environmental agency took them over to protect an endangered species. "Do you want to save a sparrow, or do you want me to grow good, safe food for our country?" he asks, shaking his head.

He lost 90 more acres when a school was built near a field he leased. It was impossible to meet chemical regulations so near the students. And part of land he still farms is subject to strict pesticide rules. "We're not going to grow green beans anymore," says Dunn. "We're going to grow houses. I'm getting to the point where I don't want to cope anymore."


Claircina Sinois is 71 years old but not at all feeble. She can't be. Her arms are thick, her skin is taut, her legs solid.

On workdays this grandmother of 16 rises in the dark morning and waits at the peach-trimmed North Miami home she rents with two other elderly women on NE 12th Avenue, where during daylight hours, children romp in the peaceful, tree-lined streets.

Usually around 6, a van pulls up and she climbs aboard, still groggy and snacking on a banana. Sometimes she and the others transfer to a school bus in nearby Little Haiti. Then they ride an hour or so down to the fields outside Homestead or Florida City and begin picking beans. After about an hour, Sinois's body starts to hurt.

She returns as late as 11 p.m., when she cooks up soothing cornmeal porridge with chicken, pops an aspirin or two, and fills a hot water bottle with steamy tap water. She gently places the bottle on her shoulders, back, and knees. She sleeps fitfully. Maybe six hours.

Yesterday's aches remain when she awakens in the morning. "I'm tired, tired, tired," says Sinois. "Tremendous pain. If I had the chance, I'd stop, but I can't." She tugs her turquoise cardigan around her rainbow-colored housedress. Her short gray hair is pulled into a tuft of a ponytail.

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