Somehow it seemed wrong to Andre Desimar, after traveling all this distance -- the long perilous open boat voyage from Haiti, three days on an old school bus from Florida -- to find his life unraveling at knifepoint in a Virginia tomato field.

Desimar was picking green tomatoes with a crew of Haitians when the argument broke out. He says the crew assistant told him his hamper wasn't full enough and he wouldn't get his 40 cents until it was full.

The details are confused, but a melee broke out. Haitians say they ripped up tomato stakes to defend themselves against the knife-brandishing crew assistant and his buddies. Blows were exchanged and finally the Haitians fled the field.

Desimar and his nearly penniless friends were picked up by legal aid workers from nearby Belle Haven and lodged in another migrant labor camp, away from their old crew leader, where they could look for more work or a way back to Florida. The prospects for either were not bright.

This is the other side of the highly publicized and politically volatile story of the boat people who have fled Haiti in the last two years to a haven in the United States. By U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service estimates, some 15,000 entered illegally in fiscal 1980; perhaps another 9,000 this year.

Illiterate, poor, unskilled and able to speak only their native Creole, thousands of the Haitians have entered the migrant farm labor force, helping to harvest the bountiful fruit and vegetable crops that grow along the East Coast from Florida up through Virginia, Maryland and Delaware to the Canadian border.

The Haitians are regarded generally as industrious, exemplary workers. But the arrival of many hundreds of them to the Eastern Shore of Virginia and Maryland this year has brought a raft of new problems to farmers, social workers and legal services attorneys.

Unfamiliar with laws designed to protect them as farm workers, the Haitians stoically accept the unsanitary quarters and long hours. Unfamiliar with the economy, they accept the high prices charged for food and illegal alcohol in the work camps. Unable to express themselves, they can't argue effectively if they are underpaid or are charged without explanation for other costs, like rent or transportation.

Only a few Creole-speaking interpreters are available in the three Delmarva states.

Farmers and crew leaders are thrilled with the new Haitian stoop-labor force. Raymond (Beaver) Campbell, a Florida-based crew leader who came north with 40 Haitians this year, said, "If I didn't have the Haitians, I'd have given this up. They outwork the Americans by two to one; they work and they don't come to you with problems."

Emma Bradley, another crew leader from Florida, came north this year with an all-Haitian crew. Some workers on her crew have told migrant service workers that she uses the threat of INS explusion to keep them in line, an allegation she rejects.

Bradley acknowledges problems with language and math among her Creole-speaking crew, but says, "They work better than Americans. I have less problems."

Added Anselme Remy, a Haitian graduate of New York University and Brandeis who oversees a federally funded evening school program based at Salisbury, Md.: "The vast majority of these people are illiterate, so we start from the beginning. We teach them functional use of English and survival skills -- how to talk to the boss, how to fill out forms, how to go shopping. And we try to get them to understand what this society is about.

"They are very highly motivated, but they are hampered by the condition of work. They may work 10 to 12 hours a day, then are so tired they can't eat or take a shower. Yet our attendance is better than 80 percent daily."

Remy is bitter about the conditions the Haitian workers have found on the Eastern Shore. "We are covering 15 camps in Maryland and Delaware and they are all bad, by degrees," he said.

"We don't need new laws. We need enforcement. I've seen a lot, but I never thought it could be this bad in this country.

"It is doubly bad for the Haitians. They don't understand the reality -- that growers are very powerful people, they are in politics or they own the politicians. And there are judges that share the view that workers are subhuman. There are a lot of things the Haitians accept as they rationalize their situation."

This is not universal. A number of Haitians -- young men like Antoine Belizaire and Anelas Prenell -- have left the migrant stream on the Delmarva Peninsula and have found or are trying to find steady work.

Prenell, 22, stepped off a boat in Florida in December, 1979, spent a day under INS detention and then went to work as a farm laborer. He then worked in a New York toy factory, got laid off and returned to Florida, joining the migrant stream that brought him to Maryland this summer.

He lasted a month. "It was very difficult work and I couldn't do it," he said. "It was too hard. The most I made was $75 in one week, picking cucumbers. I want to find a job now, to study. I am looking for success."

Belizaire, 35, left his wife and small child in Haiti in early 1979 to take a rickety boat to Florida. He was clapped into an INS holding pen for six months, then he joined the migrant stream.

This year, still with no skills and scant English, he jumped from the stream to look for a job in Salisbury.

"The most I ever made in one week was a little over $100," he said. "But it was never a constant income and I want to find steady work now."

That kind of uncertainty creates pressures, said Sister Regina Hudson, who directs the federally sponsored migrant health clinic at Nassawadox, Va. She has registered close to 3,000 Haitian workers this year. She sees Haitians every day and deals with their problems, which she finds serious.

"A lot of it is psychological, and it is also a communications problem," she said, "because they can't express themselves. There is a lot of depression and anxiety, in addition to the other infirmities."

Fifty miles north in Maryland, at the Westover labor camp in Somerset County, chief migrant nurse Carol Budi has encountered similar problems. "We have found a good deal of gastritis and peptic ulcer disease, which has to be related to the pressure the Haitians are under."

Yves Point-du-Jour is a Haitian who came here six years ago, graduated in May from Morgan State at Baltimore and has devoted himself to working with migrant countrymen around Salisbury. He touches their problems daily and is concerned most about crew leaders who take advantage of the Haitians' ignorance of their rights under U.S. laws.

"There is basically no law in Haiti, so we have to explain that we have laws here. We have to tell them they have rights here. But it is difficult, because there is much paternalism in Haiti and the boss in Haiti is highly respected," Point-du-Jour said.

"In fact, for some of these people it is the first time they have heard the word 'rights.' That is what we are dealing with."

NEXT: The crew leaders