News / USA

It's a 'Hard Knock' Life for Haitian Farm Workers in Miami

Haitian farm workers pick beans on a farm in Homestead, Florida, 21 Apr 2010
Haitian farm workers pick beans on a farm in Homestead, Florida, 21 Apr 2010

A car ride to Homestead, Florida where several hundred people are working the fields reveals beautiful scenery. The sky is blue with few clouds, there are palm trees, emerald green grass, flowers and perfectly manicured crops.  The scent of fresh soil and plants fill the air. For a tourist it's a lovely escape from the intensity of Miami, but the reality is that life for the farm workers tucked away deep in the fields is not easy.

There are more than 400,000 farm workers in Florida. The majority are Mexicans or from South and Central America. About 35 percent are Haitian.

The Farmworkers Association of Florida says this type of work can be hazardous because workers are often exposed to chemicals used to treat crops. In addition, it is one of the lowest paying jobs. Farm work demands a physical effort.  At night, workers complain of sore arms, legs and backs.  

The work day begins between 3:00 a.m. and 4:00 a.m. for Haitians working in the bean fields. A "contractor" picks them up in a bus or van between 5:00 a.m. and 6:00 a.m.  They pick beans or tomatoes from about 8:00 a.m. until 7:00 p.m. when they board the bus or van to return home.

The next morning, the process starts all over again - seven days a week.

When you talk to the farmworkers - men and women alike - they tell you the work is hard, but they don't have a choice. Even though the labor can be back-breaking most Haitians are smiling at the end of the day. They say they are thankful to be able to make a little money to send home to Haiti. Some of them prefer to avoid conversation alltogether, for fear of opening themselves up to problems with their supervisors on the farm.

"It's a lot of energy, a lot of effort. Sometimes I spend the entire day working. You get up and eat or drink but then it's back to work," one woman explains. She's thin and looks drained but is smiling at her accomplishments for the day. She was able to fill more than 10 buckets.

"Thank God, we are getting along, we aren't doing too badly," a man tells me. "I don't know how many buckets I filled today, but it was a lot."

Another woman who says she's 76 (but looks about 50) has just left the bean field.  She stands near the bus wearing a pastel-colored floral dress that has faded. There are three holes in the front. "I came here in 2001. In 2003, I started working in the fields. It helps me pay for everything, everything," she explains.

But the contractors who shuttle the workers to the fields are less complimentary. They say their biggest problem is a lack of leadership and discrimination from some officials. They don't know where to go for protection.

Laroche is a contractor who came to the United States 30 years ago. He's from Cap Haitien, in northern Haiti. Laroche has been working on farms for 25 years and is full of information about how the work is done.

"Haitians need to know they are going to make lots of money," he explains. "One makes 40 [dollars] another 50, another 60. They are always trying to outdo eachother, so as not to be the one to pick the least amount [of fruits or vegetables]."  Laroche says the workers earn $3.50 for each bucket of beans they pick. Most of them pick between 15 and 40 buckets a day. A meager wage, considering the intense effort required.

"It's not illegal," Laroche says in reference to the small salary. "That's how the government wants it. Each time the minimum wage goes up, they raise the price."  He says when the farmworkers pick fruits such as tomatoes for example, they can fill buckets faster and with less effort.

After the bucket is filled, the worker puts it in a large plastic bin. The beans are later washed, boxed and sent off to market.  According to Laroche, Mexicans are the biggest competition for Haitians working in the fields.

Florida state law requires that anyone who recruits, transports, furnishes or employs farm workers obtain a license.  Contractors must also adhere to strict regulations and high standards. According to the state of Florida, the regulations are meant to protect the farm workers as well as their employers.  Among the responsibilities of contractors are safe transportation, sanitation and water.

"We're here to protect the worker," explains Jerry Willson, Division Director for the Division of Regulation. His office regulates investigators, professionals and the farm labor program.

"We're there to protect the workers and the transportation, making sure they have water, sanitation and making sure people are licensed," he adds.

Periodically, inspectors visit the farms to make sure the workers have all the resources they need. Wilson says there is a checklist of items that are meant to safeguard them. "It should be pretty difficult to deviate from that list," he says. "In terms of transportation, they arrive to the grove and we check these vans and buses.. we check tire pressure, lights. We check the payroll to make sure the minimum wage is applied. If they get paid by the volume that they pick, we check the records."

Laroche and several other Haitian contractors say the biggest thorn in their side is Lydia Vilar Reynolds, an investigator for the Department of Regulation. She makes life difficult, they say.  The contractors give examples of how in their view she targets Haitians, holding them to the highest standards and issuing tickets for violations without mercy. When it comes to the Mexicans, they say, she turns a blind eye.

Several other contractors share the same opinion.

"They [authorities] came here and held a meeting...immigration [officers] gave me a paper and they told me I can call any time. Mexicans work without papers, no problem.  We have papers and we can't work," contractor Joseph Fisteyak says. " Gregory [a lawyer] and Lydia are the ones who create problems for us. If only there were a Haitian who could help us. But we have no leaders."

According to the contractors, the Haitian political leaders in Miami haven't done anything to help their situation.

Jerry Wilson, Division Director for the Division of Regulation says he is aware of the complaints about investigator Lydia Vilar Reynolds. "Yes, I think I heard about it approximately six months ago," he says. "We sent a supervisor to the area and conducted interviews with the farmers and contractors and workers and were not able to substantiate it. We were not able to take any action against her. Certainly as a division we have to apply the law evenly and fairly."

Wilson said although there are no plans to move the investigator from the area, he is "very concerned" about the complaints.

"I'd be happy to look into this," he said. " We are out there to apply the law and enforce it."  

Wilson says there is currently one Creole speaking investigator and that person is assigned to the Palm Beach area. He says the Department of Regulation may send that investigator to Homestead to talk to the farmworkers and contractors.

The Division of Regulation also notes that there is a toll-free hotline available for anyone who wishes to report a concern. They can do so confidentially.

"We would take that very seriously," Wilson said.

The toll-free number is 1-800-633-3572.  Wilson says they have distributed brochures and cards in the field that contain the number as well.

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