In August 2001, when he was sent to jail for four years, Michael Allen Lee was forty-three years old. He had been convicted of enslavement.
This happened in Fort Pierce, a town on the coast of Florida in the south-east corner of the United States. There are many large and prosperous farms nearby where citrus fruits—oranges, grapefruits, lemons, limes—are grown. Michael was working there as a ‘labour boss’. He was hiring workers to pick fruit. The workers were not paid by the farmers whose fields they worked in. They were paid by Michael. The farmers paid him for providing labour for them.
Many of the people who pick the fruit that is grown in Florida are migrant workers. Most of them come from Mexico and other Central American countries. About eighty percent are in the US illegally. The workers Michael hired, however, were Americans, men who had been born in the US.
Michael found his employees in shelters for homeless men in Orlando, a large city about 150 kilometers to the north of Fort Pierce. He told the men he found living in these places that, if they came with him to Fort Pierce, they would make good money. He also tempted them with cocaine and alcohol.
When the men got to Fort Pierce, however, they discovered that their lives were worse than they had been in Orlando. Fifteen men had to live in a run-down, four-bedroom house. They each had to pay $30.00 a week in rent. The money was deducted from their paycheck. They slept in small beds or on mattresses on the floor; some of them slept in the halls. There were insects everywhere.
There was no drinkable water in the house. There were taps, but the water that came out of them was green or brown, and it smelled bad. The men had to bring drinking water from the farm in coolers.
They got up every morning before the sun came up. They were taken in a van to the farms where they were working. The van was over-crowded and they had to sit on the floor or on buckets.
On the way to the fields, the van stopped at a small store, and Michael gave each of his workers about five dollars to buy their breakfast and lunch.
They worked all day, until six in the evening. There were no bathrooms in the fields. There was no way they could wash the pesticide off their hands. They did have water in coolers but they had no cups to drink it from.
After work, Michael gave the men some more money, five dollars or less, for their supper. They pooled what they got, and then they shopped and cooked together. Sometimes they cooked a chicken. Sometimes they had hot dogs. Occasionally, one of Michael’s associates brought a wild animal, a raccoon or a tortoise, and cooked it for the men’s supper.
Every Friday, Michael brought the men their paychecks. He got them to sign the checks. Then he took them and deposited them in his bank account. Before paying the men he deducted their rent and all the money he’d given them for food during the week. He also charged them for the sacks they used when they were picking the fruit. He made other deductions too, but he refused to tell the men what they were. The men were earning between $500 and $600 every week, but sometimes more than half of this was deducted.
Sometimes, instead of giving the men money, Michael paid them in alcohol or cocaine. If they objected to being paid in this way , he told them that if they didn’t accept it, they’d get nothing.
Michael told the men who were working for him that if they tried to leave, he would find them and punish them. That is what happened to one of his workers, George Williams.
In 1997, George left Michael’s house and went to work for another ‘boss’ in Fort Pierce. When Michael found out, he went to get him. He dragged him to his truck and then took him to another one of his houses. There, while one of his associates held George down, he beat him. When he was finished beating George, Michael made him wipe his own blood off the walls.
Michael tried to keep George captive, but he escaped through a window and went to the police to make a complaint. The police began an investigation and, two years later, Michael was charged with enslavement. Shortly after Michael was charged, but before he was convicted, George died of cancer. He was 47.
A few months after he escaped and made his complaint, George, along with some other workers, started a lawsuit against a citrus grower, Beville II. This was the company that owned the fields they had been working on. Before the case was taken to court, the company agreed to a financial settlement with the workers.
Getting this money from the company was an unusual legal victory for the workers. In previous years, several labour bosses had been convicted on enslavement charges in Florida. But no growers had ever been charged with this crime. The growers insisted that the workers who were picking their fruit were not their employees. They said they found it more ‘efficient’ to let labour bosses hire the workers and pay them. When the labour bosses were convicted of enslavement, the growers said they had no idea of what the bosses were doing. Sometimes this has been hard to believe. For example, in one case, Consolidated, one of the biggest growers in the US, continued to do business with two labour bosses even while they were on trial for enslavement.
- information from: St. Petersburg Times, 01.08.16, (Thomas C. Tobin); Palm Beach Post, 01.02.16 (Molly Hennessy-Fiske); The Miami Herald, 03.09.16 (Ronnie Green); - information from: St. Petersburg Times, 01.08.16, (Thomas C. Tobin); Palm Beach Post, 01.02.16 (Molly Hennessy-Fiske); The Miami Herald, 03.09.16 (Ronnie Green);