Labor & Employment

Former Fla. Farm Laborer Sues Ex-Employer, Claims He Enslaves Workers, Pays Them with Drugs

Only five years ago, a labor contractor near Hastings, Fla., was criminally convicted and sentenced to a 30-year prison term for a scheme that authorities said involved luring homeless workers to a secluded farming community where they were kept deep in debt and paid with drugs and alcohol.

But similar schemes allegedly persist, as one claimed victim details in a federal lawsuit filed last month. LeRoy Smith alleges that he and others were kept as virtual slaves, running up debt for food, housing and drugs that prevented them from earning money for their work, the Tampa Bay Times reported in a lengthy Sunday article.

Abusive labor practices have reportedly persisted in Putnam and St. Johns counties, where lawsuits and federal labor investigations have resulted in some settlements and payment of back wages but sanctions have fallen short of what’s required to clean up the practices of some farm employers, the newspaper says.

In the case of the convicted and imprisoned contractor, other employers who take a similar approach seemed to learn only to distance themselves from supplying drugs directly to workers, the article recounts.

Attorney Weeun Wang of Farmworker Justice in Washington, D.C., is one of the lawyers representing Smith.

To eradicate such practices, “You’ve got to get the employers out of this mindset and make it riskier for them to use this kind of labor,” he told the Times. “The reason it’s hard to eradicate is because the workers don’t step forward. It’s very difficult to get them to do something for themselves.”

The defendant owner of the potato farm at issue in Smith’s case could not be reached for comment, the newspaper says. But the defendant labor contractor, who is accused of mistreating workers he allegedly recruited from homeless shelters in Jacksonville, said he did nothing wrong, and those who claim otherwise are simply lying, according to the Times.

Workers pay $55 per week to live in an air-conditioned bunk house and get three squares a day, Ronald Uzzle told the newspaper. If they wish to take their pay and leave, they are free to do so.

The Florida Times-Union and Fox 30 News also have stories about the Fair Labor Standards Act suit.

It was filed in April, in Jacksonville, in the Middle District of Florida. Justia provides a link to the complaint.

Related coverage: “Suit Seeks to Stop Fetish Film Producer from Paying Homeless Men to be Physically Abused By Women”

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