Ignored and Cheated
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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?"
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.
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.'"
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."
"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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