Slavery in Alachua

DAVID HOFFMAN

Dedicated to the wonderful, inspiring, and beyond compassionate Dr. Richard Macmaster, without whom this article would never have been written.

Slavery in Alachua
Art by Ziqi Wang

Slavery (n) – a person entirely under the domination of some influence or person

Alachua County is the home of the University of Florida, the institution we know and love. However, here, in Alachua, is where a group of both Haitian-born American citizens and Haitian guest workers were essentially enslaved to labor for Steven Davis Farms, LLC. According
to the final 2014 court ruling against Steven Davis, the court found no past record “in which a grower’s violations of farmworkers’ fundamental rights…have persisted for as many years [three and half] as have been shown in this case.”

How on Earth did this happen? What exactly happened? Why?

Steven Davis operates a farm out of the Lacrosse area in northern Alachua County. Since the early 2000s, Davis acquired his workforce through an intermediary, Haitian-American Eugene Regis, who recruited Haitian-born US citizens, typically in their 50s or 60s, well below the poverty line and severely limited in employment options. Then, in 2007, with an expansion of the farm and need for more workers, Davis’ new intermediary Cabioch Bontemps, Regis’ stepson, along with his sister and another associate, traveled back to Haiti to seek a new workforce group.
Presenting the opportunity as a path to US citizenship and a stable, steady source of work – both very appealing selling points considering the disorder of post-earthquake Haiti – Bontemps and crew recruited about 34 Haitians. The 34 Haitians were to pay a small travel fee up-front and allow the remaining sum to be redacted from their income, and Bontemps and crew brought them to the states under the guise of guest worker status.
With two groups of workers on the farm, these being over 80 Haitian-born US citizens and 34 Haitian guest workers, Steven Davis and Bontemps proceeded to commit a myriad of labor violations. The 1982 Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act (MSPA) ensures “employment-related protections to migrant and seasonal agricultural workers,”[1] including provisions demanding accurate record keeping and timely, complete wage payments. Davis and Bontemps complied with no such provisions.

Inconsistent and disproportionately low payments (often provided in cash envelopes), uninspected and underdeveloped housing, no social security or income tax payments, constant threats of deporting the guest workers: David and Bontemps did it all. In fact, whenever federal inspectors visited the farm and pre-informed Davis of  their inspection— as required by law—Bontemps usually moved the group of 34 workers away from the farm while those left behind were made to appear happy and content during the inspection. In one case, Bontemps moved the guest workers to a nearby Wal-Mart.

Finally, in July 2014, a court ruling found Steven Davis Farms, LLC guilty and fined Davis with $112,500. Prosecuting attorney (against Davis) Greg Schell arrived at this settlement, within the provisions of the MSPA, by charging Davis with $2,000 for each category of labor violation against each of 24 workers (only these 24 had enough of a record to build a case).

Unfortunately, and heartbreakingly, the story did not end there.

Originally, attorney Greg Schell was to oversee the reallocation of $112,500 back to the workers; however, due to the complaint of a particularly vocal worker, the court revised the case summary conclusion by specifying the workers themselves will collect the $112,500 from Steven Davis. ]] Given Davis’ history of withholding wages and illegally omitting records, I think it’s safe to say these workers will be hard-pressed, at best, to get the money they deserve.

And now that Greg Schell no longer oversees the reallocation of Davis’ fee, Schell contends, “I haven’t been up there in a while, but it’s likely that Davis is still operating…it [the court ruling] basically means nothing.”
How could something like this happen? According to Mr. Schell, we simply have a convoluted, growing problem and a “lack of resources.”

On the lack of  resources, we students constantly hear of  how it is supposedly a bad time to pursue law school. “The legal market is oversaturated,” many experts argue, yet according to a 2014 study by the National Center for Education Statistics,[2] the number of completed law degrees is increasing. So, how can we have, simultaneously, a plethora
of young, anxious law-school graduates ready to hit the field and a “lack of resources” to effectively handle cases like that of Steven Davis. Two words: student debt.

The average debt of law students in America is over $100,000 and on the rise. As UF professor of history and criminology Dr. Jeffrey Adler illustrates, law students can walk into school with the most noble intentions of civil service, but when they come out with such crippling primary concern becomes pulling themselves out of debt. Their original intent of direct civil service for the underprivileged is, all too often, postponed or unrecognized.

Another important factor complicating the Davis case is the issue of property and land. In Florida, if you owe money to the state, as Davis does – a lot of money, in fact – your personal property can be seized, but according to the Florida Bar, “your home is protected from all creditors except those holding a mortgage or lien on your residence.”[3] In essence, the courts and state are limited in forcing Davis to pay his dues – as if Davis’ aloof attitude were not enough to prolong his debt payments.
Adding to Davis’ ability to evade the law and hide in the shadows is the general public apathy or unawareness of these kinds of migrant farmworker justice issues.

Dr. Erin Conlin, professor of history at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania, contents, “we as a general public are not aware of where our food comes from.” Public attention rises when individual stories like the Davis case break out every now and then, “but eventually, the outrage fades away, and the farmers just get a slap on the wrist.”
In spite of all this legal backlogging, the winner was none other than Steven Davis, for he continued to operate the farm and mistreat his workers as usual.

To tie this Steven Davis to a broader context, this Davis case is clear example of how rampant labor abuses are within the guest worker program. The guest worker program provides a network for foreign workers to come work domestic jobs, often lower skilled, when there is a shortage of domestic workers for those jobs. These foreign workers gain legal status through the H-2 visa program. Each visa lasts for about three years, and the program is divided into two types of visas: H-2A for agricultural workers and H-2B for non-agricultural workers. A very similar H-1 visa program exists for more specialized, high-skilled work, often in technology fields.

Well, in writing, this system seems solid and fruitful, but in practice, acts of malpractice and abuse arise. Labor writer and author Laura Apgar aptly points out how H-2 visa holders, “are tied to [individuals’] employers, therefore they cannot change employers or jobs while working in the U.S.”[4] Dr. Erin Conlin argues, “most historians were weary of this program from the start…guest workers are much more dependent than are domestic workers,” by virtue of being tied to often one contract of one employer. Thus, labor malpractices become, “almost inherent nature.”

And we see in the Davis case, these workers are often threatened with inconsistent pay, substandard living conditions, and not receiving visas, or for those finally who obtained them, having their visas revoked.
So even though these H-2 workers, in Florida, account for more than ½ of strawberry picking and nearly ½ of tomato picking, they are grossly underrepresented in the courts and mistreated on the farms. And such malpractice trickles up the economic ladder into the H-1 program.
Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and Intel: these big tech companies bring in 10,000s of H-1 visa workers annually, and in 2013, they lobbied Congress with about $14 million to raise the cap of disbursable H-1 visas, currently at 85,000. To justify the use of foreign guest workers, Microsoft points to the lack of STEM education in American workers. Yet, just last year, Microsoft announced the company’s biggest layoffs in history: 18,000 jobs to be cut throughout 2014 and 2015.

Why cut so many domestic workers to then import guest workers? Sure, we lag desperately behind in STEM at the primary and secondary school level, but seeing that Microsoft and Google recruit workers straight out of universities like Carnegie Mellon, ranked as the 4th best computer science program in the world,[5] it seems contradictory to toss aside such a stark number of domestic workers. So, why? Well, H visa workers are often beholden to their first employers and, consequently, can be paid less than a US worker.

So,  this guest worker issue, from Steven Davis Farms all the  way to Microsoft, is pretty significant. As Greg Schell argues, “this [H visa program] is where the citizens of tomorrow are coming from. Everyone’s focused on the 11 million undocumented workers,” but these guest workers arrive here completely legally. “They can march right through Donald Trump’s big fat wall.”

In light of  all this depressing news and insight, what can we   do? Take the case of Gabriel Perez, a Palm Beach, FL busboy, who just  this past March, won a lawsuit against the Department of  Labor. Based  on a 2008 ruling that made it easier for employers in the non-agricultural, minimum wage job market to hire H-2B workers, [6]employers in the palm- beach area were particularly liberal with hiring H-2B workers in an attempt to fill staff during the fall, when college students leave town and return to their campuses. Perez argued this bias disenfranchised him and decreased his prospects of getting hired. Consequently, the Department of  Labor  was forced to halt disbursement of H-2B visas for two whole weeks before settling Perez’s case.

Obviously, most of us do not share Gabriel Perez’s circumstances. But Perez’s activism shows us that we the people can successfully lobby Congress and the Department of Labor to ensure domestic jobs are prioritized over an employer’s desire to frivolously obtain H-2B workers.
Back on home-turf, with the Steven Davis case in Alachua Country, in spite of the history of attempts at punishing Davis, he is still likely operating as usual. The simple solutions, such as working to get Davis arrested on certain charges or encouraging local businesses to boycott Steven Davis Farms, would in the end, not likely bode well for the 130+ Haitian workers under Davis’ jurisdiction. So what’s left?

Well, as a community, as Gainesvillians, we can be more vigilant in spreading awareness for this nearly forgotten tragedy and encourage our leadership to do something about not only Davis, but also about the many other farmers just like him across Northern-Central Florida, Georgia    and
the Midwest.

And the next time you, personally, encounter the argument that the 11 million undocumented workers are, “hurting the U.S. by taking American jobs,” take the conversation to the next level and explain how  it’s American corporations and selfish, mal-intentioned farmers who are hurting American jobs by abusing the H-1 and H-2 visa programs and exploiting workers.

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