Ignored and Cheated

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

A man in his late forties with graying hair and a black-and-white plaid shirt straddles a milk crate as he strips beans from plants on a recent morning in a South Miami-Dade field. He belongs to a Homestead firm, Toto's Picking crew, which this season has imported about 80 bean pickers from Haiti. A teacher back home, the man says he makes about $8.56 an hour and pays $50 to $100 weekly for a shared room at the Country Lodge on Krome Avenue in Florida City. He arrived in November; his temporary work visa ends in May.

"The last two weeks, it was too cold, so we didn't work or make very much," says the man, who asked his name be withheld so he wouldn't lose his job. "After paying for the hotel and the food, I don't have much left. I was expecting to make more."

The hottest import in bean fields this season is Haitian workers. Hundreds have been allowed to work here under a federal guest-worker program that has become a quick fix for stalled immigration reform. Beginning in November, Miami-Dade contractors flew in a record number of foreign workers. Dozens stay in fleabag hotels in South Dade, and rules meant to protect them are often ignored. So far there's been little policing. In past cases, these workers have been treated as unfairly as Sinois. Soon federal and state probes could show just how bad things are today.

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.

The program, called H-2, dates back to the Forties, when the Florida sugar cane industry imported Caribbean workers on temporary visas. It was designed to make up for labor shortages in the fields — and to attract foreign workers who otherwise might enter the country illegally. It mandates at least minimum wage, reimbursement for travel costs, healthy conditions, and free housing (which the Toto's Picking employee was apparently not receiving). Farming companies should confirm the need for workers by advertising the jobs locally first. The United States issued about 32,000 such visas in 2005.

President Bush mentioned the need for laws to bring in more temporary foreign workers in his 2007 State of the Union address so they "won't have to sneak in." The Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, which represents most growers in the state, calls it necessary because few American residents want to do such hard manual labor. The trade group fielded 65 requests for about 4,500 workers in 2007. That's a 30 percent jump from 2006. "It's not a perfect program, but more growers are accessing it," says Lisa Lochridge, a spokeswoman for the fruit and vegetable group.

In the past, only one Miami-Dade farm sought to import workers, state records show. This season, four labor contractors submitted seven applications. They were approved to ship in up to 300 workers and pay $8.56 an hour. Toto's Picking is one of them. The company's president is Enite Cemerville, a 27-year-old hairstylist whose father, Seden Penel, was recently overseeing the pickers in the field. She says there aren't enough people willing to harvest beans. And older Haitians, who once made up the bulk of the workforce, pick too slowly. "They really don't want to do the dirty work anymore," she adds.

She and her father, Penel, did six weeks of interviews in a Port-au-Prince hotel to recruit workers, she explains. "Believe me, when you go to a starving country, it's funny how fast you get phone calls," Cemerville says. "It was easy to get them here, honestly."

Workers eat daily at a restaurant run by Penel, whom they call "Toto." They pay $9 for both breakfast and dinner. Attendance is taken nightly at two Krome Avenue motels, the Holiday Motel and the Country Lodge. Cemerville says her company picks up the tab and warns workers about fleeing. "Ever seen that show, Scared Straight?" she asks. "We told them all the bad stuff that could happen.... They know that if there are problems, they are not coming back."

Four guest workers interviewed on a busy Saturday night at the Holiday Motel confirmed Cemerville's description. They say they earn $8.56 per hour. They'll be sent home in May but hope to return in the fall. A lanky, six-foot-tall, 38-year-old, who asked not to be identified for fear he could lose the job, said he has saved some money to pay medical bills for his seven-year-old daughter, who can't walk. "I'm hoping that November is right around the corner so I can come back," he says.

But the program might not be everything it seems. Immigration authorities are investigating claims of human smuggling, sources say. Several Homestead residents have claimed they paid a recruiter thousands of dollars to bring in relatives, which would be illegal, lawyers say. One crew told Florida Rural Legal Services their passports and visas had been taken from them, a sign of human trafficking. And in late February, dozens of guest workers in Georgia joined a suit alleging they'd been underpaid by Two Brothers Farms, a company that applied to import about 75 pickers to county fields.

"It is like human trafficking," says Sauveur Pierre, a Haitian-American who works with Florida Rural Legal Services. "They hear there's a job here, and they'll do whatever they can to get that job. It's cheaper because they're often not paid what they're supposed to be paid. And if they complain, their employer will say, 'We'll send you back.'"

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