Potato grower accused of labor trafficking

A potato grower - Florida-based Bulls-Hit Ranch & Farm - and its labor contractor have been accused of labor trafficking and exploiting drug-addicted workers, according to a Jacksonville lawsuit filed Apr. 24 by Florida Legal Services and Farmworker Justice.

The suit was filed on behalf of two farm workers. They say they were victims of trafficking and other federal and state labor law violations while employed in 2009 and 2010 by the grower, reports the AFL-CIO.

Bulls-Hit's labor contractor, Ronald Uzzle, recruited and took advantage of vulnerable men from Jacksonville homeless shelters, the complaint claimed. Uzzle then used these men to form work crews for potato packing operations, but took advantage of their drug dependencies to make them compliant and willing to work at a low cost to Bulls-Hit.

As such, Uzzle and Bulls-Hit are liable for cheating the workers out of fair wages, and for damages that result from violations of migrant agricultural worker protection laws and federal labor trafficking laws. The trafficking laws prohibit exploiting a person for labor by way of force, fraud, or coercion.

According to the complaint, Uzzle took the workers to a dirty, overcrowded labor camp where they were given below-human-standards housing, illegal harmful drugs, and credit to make drug and other camp purchases at interest rates of up to 100 percent.

When the farm workers received their pay each week, Bulls-Hit took money from their wages to pay for their rent, food, and weekly debts. Resultantly, the workers were left to stagnate; stuck in a destitute state, deeply in debt and extremely dependent on their employers.

The workers feared for their safety if they tried to leave while still indebted, the report notes.

"The lawsuit exposes deeply disturbing labor practices that should have no place in modern agriculture," said Bruce Goldstein, president of Farmworker Justice. These practices, he remarked, are "all too sadly still employed by the most unscrupulous employers."

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