The story of vulnerable and powerless workers exploited in Florida's agricultural fields is as old as the state itself. But it is always shocking to hear about the lengths some growers and labor contractors will still go to cut corners on pay. One such story involves LeRoy Smith, a drifter with a strong back whose drug addition was used to hold him at a labor camp in the small town of Hastings. The contractor who enlisted Smith had been in trouble for labor practices before but continues to indenture new crews of men. Smith's story points to the need for more aggressive enforcement of labor laws and for growers to stop looking the other way.
Smith's story is not uncommon. As reported by Tampa Bay Times staff writer Ben Montgomery last Sunday, Smith was out of prison, hooked on crack and living in Jacksonville when he was picked up and brought to the labor camp of Ronald Uzzle in Hastings. According to Smith, Uzzle used debt and drugs to control crews of men who were housed in overcrowded conditions with one decrepit bathroom. The bunkhouse full of elderly, drug-addicted black men would line up for loans at 100 percent interest or to buy alcohol or crack. The debts for this as well as weekly food and rent easily outpaced what the men were paid for grading potatoes. Uzzle denies it all. But Smith and a number of his fellow workers agree that they were made virtual prisoners.
Getting a handle on farmworker mistreatment is exceptionally difficult. Drug-addicted or undocumented workers don't make good witnesses. They're afraid to stand up when their wages are stolen or conditions of work are degraded. And migrant laborers can be impossible to pin down as they move with the crop harvesting seasons, making investigations into human trafficking that much harder.
Smith, who worked for Uzzle for two months and never received a paycheck, decided to break the silence. He is suing Uzzle with the help of farmworker advocates. One of Smith's lawyers, Weeun Wang of Farmworker Justice in Washington, says the suit also names potato grower Bulls-Hit Ranch and Farm in an attempt to make exploitative labor practices more costly. Encouraging growers to stop using unscrupulous contractors like Uzzle is key to eradicating the problem.
Authorities in Florida and the federal government also have a role to play. According to spokeswoman Sandi Copes Poreda, an investigation into Uzzle has been launched by Florida's Department of Business & Professional Regulation. And Uzzle has been investigated and cited several times before by the U.S. Department of Labor. But somehow this man continues doing business, plying his recruits with drugs and alcohol and keeping them in his debt. This suggests a law enforcement double-standard where farmworker abuse is taken less seriously.
These sorts of exploitative operations have been allowed in Florida for decades, as Tampa Bay Times columnist Bill Maxwell recounts his experiences in the fields in the 1960s on the facing page. Floridians can no longer avert their eyes or plead ignorance. They should demand that the state redouble its enforcement efforts and insist upon more humane working conditions in the fields that produce the food on everyone's tables.