Ignored and Cheated

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

Though Bush backs the program, some politicians shun it. Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-NY) recently said, "This guest-worker program's the closest thing I've ever seen to slavery."

Whether the program is good for Miami-Dade is unclear. The county's unemployment rate has risen to 4.1 percent in the past year. Some low-paid or jobless workers in urban areas might prefer the reasonably high-paying gigs filled by the Haitians. Pickers like Claircina Sinois scrape to find jobs — even those that pay below minimum wage. "Some days there just isn't work," she says, noting she has on occasion received less than one-fourth of the imported workers' pay rate.

It is a Sunday in February. Dusky beams of sunlight filter through the trees. Birds chirp. Greg Schell, who is 54 years old and looks like a brainy high school math teacher in his short-sleeve dress shirt and thick glasses, tries to calm Sinois in the front yard of her North Miami home. She's describing how a bean crew leader recently warned her not to cause trouble. "He said, 'Take it easy because T Johnny was asking for you,'" she says and then explains the reference is to farmer John Torrese. "If he finds me, I'll tell him to talk to my lawyer or the good Lord."

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.

"It's okay," the lawyer says, patting her arm as she clutches his.

"God bless you," she says.

"I can only hope I'll be half that strong at her age," he says.

Schell has represented farmworkers in hundreds of cases during the past three decades. After growing up on a wheat farm in Washington state, he attended Harvard Law School and graduated in 1979. Then he moved to Florida and began suing growers and crew bosses. His name is up there with NAFTA among words that growers curse.

"If there is one person who has it out for the American farmer, it is Greg Schell," says Katie Edwards, executive director of the Dade County Farm Bureau.

In the late Eighties and early Nineties, he filed about a dozen bean-related lawsuits. After reviewing three years of state records and meeting Sinois and Venant, the lawyer realized conditions had plummeted again, he says. He estimates the daily pay for the more than 5,000 bean pickers ranges from less than $15 to $75. Workers must fill at least 16 boxes in eight hours to earn the state's $6.79 minimum wage. Like Sinois, many don't.

"If there's no enforcement and there's economic gain by cheating, a lot of people will cheat," Schell says. "If agriculture in Dade County has gotten to the point where they can't pay workers adequately, I don't think we should go out of the way to save it."

He is collecting evidence he hopes will persuade U.S. District Court Judge Patricia Seitz to certify as a class action the suit against Torrese and two companies he heads, T-N-T Farms and Quality Kid Produce. A handful of pickers now living in Alabama has already contacted him, he says. In about a month, Schell plans to run radio spots asking green-bean pickers with concerns about their pay to call the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project. So far, though, Venant and Sinois are his only plaintiffs.

The cycle of lawbreaking worries advocates. Last year, a state investigator cited 16 bean crew leaders in Miami-Dade 23 times for carrying pickers in unsafe buses, working without licenses, and not keeping payroll records. Fisteac was nabbed breaking two laws in June. In September, Hyppolite's company was nailed for three violations.

They could face hundreds to thousands of dollars in fines, but the cases are still unresolved. A sole state investigator is charged with policing county fields, and cases are backlogged. Federal labor officials who could punish growers rarely even make rounds.

Jonathan Fried, executive director of WeCount!, a Homestead community organization, says farmers need to start shouldering responsibility for bean pickers. Wage theft is "massive and ubiquitous.... A lot of employers feel like they can act this way in impunity," he says. "It's rare to find an immigrant worker in South Dade who hasn't been ripped off at some point."

All of the state pressure has had some effect. Sinois says Hyppolite gave her son some money several months after the season ended. She continues picking for another crew two to three days a week. "What am I going to do?" she says. "I have to make a little money. I'm not going to sit down."

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