A DEAD-END LIFE; Lured by Northeast Florida Bosses, Farm Laborers Hit the Road but Still Find Only Squalor and Debt

Article excerpt

Byline: MATT GALNOR

RALEIGH, N.C. -- Every stop brought a smidgen of hope. It couldn't possibly be as bad as the last one, many workers thought.

They piled into the cramped buses and vans, riding to the next camp.

First, Northeast Florida. Then to North Carolina, to Delaware, and back to another rural North Carolina town.

All they wanted were enough hours on the farm and enough cash on payday to get out of debt and leave behind the secluded labor camps with filthy toilets and snake-infested bunkhouses.

Yet every time, hopes were dashed for Donte Moon and Deron Ridley, recruited out of an Atlanta homeless shelter this spring by a St. Johns County labor contractor.

Moon and Ridley are two of hundreds of black men lured from cities across the Southeast by Northeast Florida contractors. The local contractors recruit across the Southeast and spend Northeast Florida's off season traversing Interstate 95 and picking up work -- often packing up every couple of weeks and heading to a different camp to work on different crops.

For Moon and Ridley, the late-night bus rides to four different camps in three different states never brought change. Each camp was in a different middle of nowhere, but all had the same story.

Former workers in Hastings-based Izeal Willis' labor crew say the bosses even had a snappy little saying they'd dangle in front of the crew:

"It'll get greater later."

Later came. Greater never did.

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Willis, who did not make the trip north this year, said in a telephone interview that the former employees were not telling the truth.

Moon and Ridley said they can't even count how many times they heard the promises, mostly from Craig Lyons, Willis' grandson.

"He'd say, 'I know it's not good right here, but ride it out with me,' " Moon said.

Moon, who left Atlanta in April, and Ridley, who came three weeks later, rode it out until mid-October. Then they scurried off the camp in the middle of the night and walked 10 miles into Clinton, N.C., then went to Legal Aid in Raleigh.

Lyons, who was on the work circuit, could not be reached for comment.

Most of the workers are completely reliant on the crew leaders. Camps are secluded -- often miles from any sort of town -- and the crew leaders sell marked-up beer, cigarettes and crack, keeping the workers in debt.

Squalor and exploitation of black, downtrodden workers was the norm in Florida and much of the Southeast a few decades ago, experts say. Most of the rest of the state has moved to illegal aliens; Northeast Florida is the only region that still has the "company store" labor camps.

Current and former legal aid attorneys in Delaware and North Carolina say nearly every black contractor they deal with that recruits primarily black workers from homeless shelters is from Northeast Florida.

Local contractors have been investigated here and farther north. They usually get hung up on the same types of charges: letting unauthorized people drive workers, not keeping safe living quarters for the workers, not paying overtime.

They pay a couple thousand dollars in fines and keep on working.

THIS IS HOME

There are 10 labor camps in Putnam and St. Johns counties. Eight are owned by the people who run them. Only indicted East Palatka camp owner Ronald Evans Sr. owns a camp outside Florida, records show.

The rest of the crew leaders bring their workers to stay in camps and trailers owned by the farmers. Some pay for blocks of rooms in rundown roadside motels and charge workers rent by the week.

And each trip up the coast is another roll of the dice for the workers.

Workers who once lived on a camp that backs up to a North Carolina swamp use two hands when describing the size of bugs that swarm the sleeping rooms.

"There were snakes everywhere," Moon said. …