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Florida Potato Grower Accused of Labor Trafficking

A Florida potato grower and its labor contractor have been accused of labor trafficking and taking advantage of drug-addicted workers, according to a federal lawsuit filed yesterday in Jacksonville by Florida Legal Services and Farmworker Justice.

The suit was filed in the U.S. District Court, Middle District of Florida, on behalf of two farm workers who say they were victims of labor trafficking and other violations of federal and state labor laws while employed in 2009 and 2010 by Bulls-Hit Ranch & Farm, a potato grower in Hastings, Fla. 

The complaint alleges that Bulls-Hit’s labor contractor, Ronald Uzzle, recruited vulnerable men from homeless shelters in urban Jacksonville, Fla., to form work crews for Bulls-Hit’s potato packing operations. 

According to the complaint, Uzzle took advantage of  drug dependencies to provide Bulls-Hit with a compliant and low-cost workforce, and that as joint employers of the workers, both Uzzle and Bulls-Hit are liable for having cheated them of wages and for damages resulting from violations of federal trafficking laws and migrant agricultural worker protection laws. Federal labor trafficking laws prohibit the procurement and exploitation of a person for labor through the use of force, fraud or coercion.

Bruce Goldstein, president of Farmworker Justice, says:

This lawsuit exposes deeply disturbing labor practices that should have no place in modern agriculture, but that all too sadly are still employed by the most unscrupulous employers.

The complaint alleges the contractor took the workers to a squalid, overcrowded labor camp, where they were supplied with decrepit housing, illegal drugs and credit to make drug and other camp purchases at interest rates of up to 100 percent. When the workers received their pay each week from Bulls-Hit, money was taken from their wages to pay for their rent, food and weekly debts. As a result, the workers were left in a constant state of destitution, indebtedness and undue dependency on their employers. Workers were afraid for their safety if they tried to leave while still indebted and were effectively indentured to their work for Bulls-Hit.

The case is Smith et al. v. Bulls-Hit Ranch and Farm Inc. et al. and its case number is 3:12-cv-00449-MMH-TEM.

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