Ignored and Cheated

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

Sinois doesn't speak English. She is illiterate and signs her name with an x. Before she came to the United States 18 years ago, she regularly traveled nine hours between Port-au-Prince and her native Ouanaminthe, near the Dominican border. In both cities, she hawked corn, peanuts, and other goods as a street vendor.

In the late Nineties, her daughter, who had six children, died of a mysterious malady at age 40 in a Santo Domingo hospital. Sinois's dark eyes water when she is asked her daughter's name. She puts her palm to her forehead and surveys her memory. She is silent a minute or so. She can't remember. Tears fall, perhaps because age steals the most precious memories.

When she turned 65, Sinois began receiving a monthly $402 Social Security check. Half of that would go toward rent for the three-bedroom house. Anything left, she says, was not enough to buy food, books, and tuition for her six grandchildren in Haiti.

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.

Around the neighborhood, she heard about jobs picking beans. (The work is often a first stop for Haitian migrants who don't speak English or are lacking documents.) Fearing she'd lose Social Security, she agreed to work off-the-books. "Somebody needed to take care of these kids," she explains.

She says she joined a labor crew under Yvon Hyppolite, a muscular, six-foot-tall bean boss in his fifties. Hyppolite, public records show, has a tainted history. In 1998, the state refused to renew his license as a crew boss after it learned of a 1993 conviction for battery on a police officer. And, the next year, an investigator nabbed him for driving workers to fields without a crew leader's license and violating seven other laws.

In the follow-up report, under the section "Commitment to Future Compliance," a state investigator wrote, "None. Too busy bribing."

By November 2002, Hyppolite had paid a $1,000 fine and was allowed to return to work. In 2006, the state cited him for breaking six laws that included using unsafe transportation and not keeping payroll records or giving pickers wage statements. That's the year Sinois says she began working with him.

Problems started for Sinois last season. Though she picked beans from about 9 a.m. to sundown five or six days a week, Hyppolite paid her only about $50 in cash each week, she says. The exact number depended upon how many boxes she filled with beans. In effect, she received about $1 per hour.

Sinois says Hyppolite claimed he was setting aside the rest of her money — between $100 and $150 per week — in a common account that would later be split between her and other workers. But when the season ended in April, she still hadn't received her $2,000. Over the next few months, she called repeatedly and even visited Hyppolite's house. But he never paid. So eventually she complained to the state.

This past January, Migrant Farmworker Justice Project attorney Greg Schell sued the grower of the beans, John C. Torrese, on behalf of Sinois and her neighbor, Borel Venant, who drove the van and contends he was cheated of even more money.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Miami, seeks to be class-action and claims payroll records weren't properly kept, taxes weren't paid, workers weren't paid minimum wage, and uninsured vehicles were used. More than 1,000 workers could gain more than $1 million in wages and damages, Schell asserts.

Torrese is one of the biggest bean farmers in the county, the lawyer says. County records list John C. Torrese as owner of 11 properties, including at least 270 acres in agricultural or unzoned land. In August 2007, the John C. Torrese Trust bought a ten-bedroom, eight-bathroom Pinecrest mansion for $3.19 million, records show. He didn't return several phone calls seeking comment for this story. In response to an e-mail New Times sent to Quality Kid Produce (which is named in the suit and lists Torrese as president and co-owner) came a message from someone named Susana Marti: "Thank you for your interest, but [we] must decline at this time," it read.

Hyppolite, who is named in the federal lawsuit, says he has been blacklisted. In late February, Torrese and his companies filed a third-party complaint against Hyppolite's company, CC One Fast Picking, and a firm associated with bean crew leader Prospery Pierre, J.N. Fast Picking. Addresses listed for Pierre and Hyppolite are mere feet apart on NW Fifth Avenue in Little Haiti.

During a meeting with New Times, Hyppolite denied employing Sinois and noted her name is not listed in a manifest of workers. (In 2006, Hyppolite was cited twice for not keeping payroll records.) He said Torrese is on the workers' side. "The state messed me up," added the 53-year-old father of seven. "This season, I've only worked three days."

If county records are any indication, beans have fed Hyppolite well in the past. Three properties worth an estimated total of $840,000 are listed under his name. He claimed the homes aren't his — even though the one on NW Fifth Avenue near 51st Street is listed as his address in the phone book and he claims a homestead exemption there. When this is pointed out, he responds, "Why does it matter if I own properties?"

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