by Nicole Flatow
For farm workers, mistreatment of many types is all too common. But in a Florida town with a history of slavery, farmers and contractors are taking this abuse to shocking new levels, subjecting men to a modern-day form of coerced labor “that begins with indebtedness and sometimes doesn't end until a worker is dead,” according to the stories of workers reported by the Tampa Bay Times reports.
In a sobering report, LeRoy Smith describes how he was coerced into coming to work for a farm where workers are kept in “an overcrowded bunkhouse full of elderly, drug-addicted black men and one decrepit bathroom.” The workers, many homeless, are picked up on the streets of nearby cities or from shelters, and taken to a “middle-of-nowhere camp” surrounded by potato fields and dirt roads, where workers are “paid” less than they are charged for food and housing, and told they are indebted to the farm, according to the newspaper.
"The only reason there's no shackles is because now they make the people submit to the cocaine,” Smith told the newspaper. “That's what they use to basically control the people."
One well-known contractor who employed these practices, Ron Evans, was sentenced to 30 years in prison in 2007 for luring homeless laborers to his camp, giving them drugs and keeping them in debt. But while the punishment was intended to send a message, laborers say other contractors who heard about Evans’ tactics after the raid are now copying his methods.
Smith and another man are suing contractor Ronald Uzzle, who refused to show the Tampa Bay Times reporter the laborers’ living quarters and has a history of Department of Labor investigations and injured worker incidents. Uzzle denied the recent allegations, and claimed he had never been sued, though the newspaper revealed that he has been a defendant in three previous labor and racketeering suits, all of which were settled with payouts from the defendants.
Weeun Wang, a lawyer with Farmworker Justice who is representing Smith and Dennis Nash, says it’s hard to identify the scope of the problem, because workers don’t step forward.
"I think it's persistent because employers still want to drive their labor costs down," Wang said. "… You've got to get the employers out of this mind-set and make it riskier for them to use this kind of labor.”
Smith, a one-time manager of a home finance company who has battled a cocaine addiction, explained the hesitation to come forward by these workers, most of whom have been homeless, drug-addicted, or have criminal records.
"There's no recourse, because we live on the fringes of society," he said. "I didn't believe it. I couldn't fathom it existing in modern day society."