MAXWELL:  A sugar coating

5/8/1995 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper

 

Fairness seems to be a trait that eludes Florida’s sugar growers. What else explains how poorly the industry treats its cane cutters? What else explains the ugly circumstances surrounding the industry’s latest labor relations battle?

Some background: In 1991, Bernard Bygrave, a cane cutter, sued U.S. Sugar for cheating him and thousands of other mostly Caribbean cutters, known as “guest workers,” on their paychecks. The suit claims that growers shortchanged the workers for several years by reneging on the terms of the work orders the cutters signed.

Lawyers for the workers said the growers promised to pay their clients by the ton, and each man was expected to cut eight tons during an eight-hour day. Growers disagree, arguing that they promised to pay “task rate,” or minimum wage, or whichever was higher.

During a 1992 nonjury hearing, a Palm Beach County judge ruled for Bygrave, ordering the growers to pay back wages of more than $51-million. Each worker would receive at least $1,500. On Wednesday, however, the Fourth District Court of Appeal overturned the ruling and ordered the case to trial to resolve “material issues of disputed fact.”

“We’re happy,” U.S. Sugar executive director Bob Buker said. “We think it’s appropriate.”

Of course, Buker is “happy.” Of course, he thinks the court’s decision is “appropriate.” Again, he and the growers he represents see another chance to avoid responsibility. If the sugar industry was fair, Bygrave’s suit would never have been necessary. But Big Sugar is not fair. Even its own attorneys agree with the three-judge appeals panel that the cutters’ contract is crafted in language so ambiguous that the cutters had no way of knowing what they should have been paid.

Why would Big Sugar give cutters a contract that fails to spell out in explicit language the terms of employment? The answer seems obvious: Growers have always abused their workers and have gotten away with it. The federal and state departments of labor and agriculture never had held the industry strictly accountable, so growers had no reason to believe they had to produce a clearly written contract for their cutters. After all, they had won nearly all of their other legal skirmishes with farm workers.

This time, however, Big Sugar needs to be chopped down to size. This wealthy industry should be made to explain why it did not tell workers exactly how they would be paid and how much they would be paid? That deception alone is grounds to force the growers to pay up. Obviously, they do not understand the meaning of fairness.

Bill Maxwell is an editorial writer and columnist for the Times.