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Drug Addicts Forced Into "Modern Slavery"

Addicted farmworkers claim they were forced into unpaid labor at Florida's Bulls-Hit Ranch.

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Bulls-Hit Ranch in Hastings, Florida
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By Chrisanne Grise

05/14/12

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Slavery may be considered consigned to America's past, but a recent report suggests that several farms in the South are forcing addicts to work for free to fuel their drug habits. The details of the alleged underground labor trafficking came to light when LeRoy Smith—a former worker at Bulls-Hit Ranch and Farm in Hastings, Florida—filed a lawsuit claiming he was lured into working there by contractors who took advantage of his crack addiction. Smith says he experienced: "Slavery. Abuse. Overwork. Deplorable, unsanitary conditions. Drugs." He claims workers—often recruited from local homeless shelters—were given drugs, alcohol and prostitutes on credit rates of 100%, and money was taken from their wages to pay for living expenses. Due to the excessive amounts of debt accumulated, workers couldn't leave and lived in fear of their employers. "They'd intimidate people. If you owed them money, then one guy'd say, 'You owe me money. You can't leave.' He'd threaten you,' says Bennie Cooks, another former Bulls-Hit employee. The farm's labor contractor, Ronald Uzzle, denies the allegations, saying that he does not keep workers in debt and that they are free to leave whenever they want. "There's no drugs sold on this camp," he says. "I'm not going to tell you people don't do drugs, but if people want to do drugs, they do it. I can't stop them." Florida authorities have reportedly failed to stop the practice—despite the fact that Bulls-Hit was sued back in 2004 for similar labor law violations. Workers' advocates believe that between five and 10 other ranching families in Florida use similar practices.

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