They called it “The Bullpen.” Farm workers were roped in from the street by recruiters and herded into the enclosed camp, where they worked during the day and slept in dirty, overcrowded bunks rife with bugs. Some, according to the workers’ legal complaint, wrestled with grinding drug addictions and were sated periodically by dealers who would come by to sink them deeper into debt and dependency.
Though reminiscent of any chain gang from the old South, this labor camp was in modern-day Florida, and these human chattel were harvesting vegetables that might have nourished your family. Brought by the legal advocacy groups Farmworker Justice (FWJ) and Florida Legal Services, this landmark suit alleges a group of homeless men were taken from Jacksonville to the Bulls-Hit Ranch and Farm in nearby Hastings by recruiters, to work the yearly potato harvests in 2009 and 2010.
There, according to the suit, which recently reached a partial settlement, they were warehoused in squalor with inadequate food and filthy surroundings. Drugs from outside “were sold to workers on a daily basis, openly and in plain view of everyone at the camp.” The complaint charges that agent who recruited them, Ronald Uzzle, earned his keep by skimming their wages for housing and food from week to week. Bulls-Hit also served as their loan shark. Uzzle and another employee known as “Too Tall” allegedly lent them money at “usurious interest rates of 100 percent.” Workers sank deeper into debt when dealers sold them drugs “on credit,” to be paid back when they could collect their wages later on.
Three named plaintiffs testified that they were regularly subject to intimidation by Uzzle and his associates at the camp, and under their watch, workers were made to fear violence as a consequence of not following orders.
The complaint charges that the operation violatied the Agricultural Worker Protection Act, minimum wage laws, and federal anti-human-trafficking laws–citing financial as well as psychological harm. The suit mirrors a similar case from 2004, which also involved the abuse of homeless workers.
A federal district court in Jacksonville certified the legal settlement targeting Bulls-Hit and its owner, Thomas Lee (litigation against the contractor will continue). According to FWJ, the settlement:
entitles the workers to back-pay for the duration of their employment at Bulls-Hit. Lee has also agreed to reform a number of employment practices, including paying workers directly rather than by channeling money through a contractor, and retaining only reputable licensed contractors.
Though the settlement does not include any word on guilt, it does allow workers to receive back pay and, more importantly, mandates steps for the main employer to improve labor practices going forward. Advocates hope the promised reforms may have a long-term effect on this notoriously exploitative sector by forcing companies to take greater responsibility for the treatment of seasonal or marginal workers.
The entire food supply chain is riven with subcontractors exploiting legal loopholes. The combination undermines federal labor standards, which are already significantly weaker than protections afforded to standard wage workers in the Fair Labor Standards Act. It’s easy for an abusive employer to skirt liability, continue squeezing wages, and profit massively without fear of regulatory scrutiny. Subcontractors for farm labor allow growers to duck behind tangled thickets of accountability, FWJ reports: [cont’d.]