By MICHAEL GERSTEIN
Capital News Service
LANSING – They work long, grueling hours in the blistering sun.
Nearly half of the 90,000 migrant laborers in the state were under the age of 13 in 2010, according to the Department of Civil Rights.
And the average migrant family makes between $12,255 and $16,773 a year, according to state estimates – far below the federal poverty line of $27,570 for a family of four.
But they are the backbone of the state’s agricultural industry, traveling from Florida to Michigan and back again, year after year.
They are migrant workers, And Marylou Olivarez-Mason used to be one of them.
Now executive director of the state Hispanic and Latino Commission, Olivarez-Mason’s life has gotten easier.
But there was a time when it wasn’t, growing up while working sun-up to sundown, traveling from Saginaw-area sugar beets to tomatoes in Ohio and back to San Antonio, Texas, for another winter.
Olivarez-Mason said her family of seven had enough money to eat, but not for much else.
In the 1970s, farmers didn’t need to warn workers about the danger of harmful pesticides, which they often sprayed even as people picked crops. And many didn’t have electricity, running water or proper housing. Some slept in tents and under trucks, eking out enough to survive the winter.
Olivarez-Mason’s family was no exception.
“I’d sit in the middle of the fields and cry and ask my mom, ‘How come I can’t be on that bus?’ But then I’d find out that I couldn’t speak Spanish in school, and my parents would say, ‘You used to cry because you weren’t in school – now you cry because you are.’”
Since then, she said prospects for some migrant families have improved.
Farmers stopped spraying chemicals on their workers, laws were enacted and agencies created to ensure workers have safe housing.
The U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division investigates complaints about below-minimum wage pay, and more Hispanic and Latino migrant families are transitioning from seasonal work to settle down.
But progress was less than linear, with a 2010 Civil Rights Department report highlighting ongoing problems, and a new report revealing a web of bureaucracy unable to ensure health and safety standards.
Sub-minimum wage pay remains “rampant,” the new report said. And no research has been done to show whether state enforcement actions like housing inspections have improved living conditions “or promoted continued non-compliance.”
The new report doesn’t sketch an updated portrait of working and living conditions, but it details actions the department made to address problems raised in the original report.
The Civil Rights Department can’t verify if conditions have changed since 2010, said Mark Bishop, a partnership coordinator with the department. “Until someone is actually out there looking at conditions we can’t say.”
However, its public information officer, Jacki Miller, said she assumes the exploitation reported three years ago is ongoing.
Overcrowding, close-proximity to harmful pesticides, lack of running water, exposed wires and poor sanitation were all commonplace, according to the earlier report.
It shows the exploitation Olivarez-Mason recalls never ended for many migrant workers. And it didn’t stop there.
Extortion, wage withholding, lack of clean water, workers being forbidden to use the bathroom on the job and gender, ethnic and racial discrimination happened regularly, the 2010 report said.
And there it said some farmers refused to hire English-speakers and white people in general, “preferring instead to hire farmworkers who do not speak English and are thus believed to be less likely to know they have the right to be treated fairly or to complain about low wages or poor working conditions.”
Some experts say they don’t expect such exploitation to end anytime soon.
“I’m still seeing problems, so I haven’t seen a huge turnaround,” said Teresa Hendricks, director of Migrant Legal Aid in Grand Rapids.
The nonprofit organization provides legal representation for cases involving employment, education, civil rights and working conditions.
Hendricks said the main violations concern the same problems in housing, pay and sanitation as the Civil Rights Department reported in 2010.
And because farmers who exploit their workers get only a slap on the wrist, they keep doing it.
“They can afford to get caught every three or four years,” she said. “There are clever ways to circumvent the law.”
She said that while the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development inspects housing, it sometimes doesn’t detect violations.
For example, Hendricks cited a situation when a farm owner forced workers to sign contracts saying they own the housing they’re staying in, putting it outside of state inspections and thus avoiding the need for a state permit.
She said owners also sometimes lease land to someone else – often a farm supervisor who can’t refuse – absolving themselves of liability for violations.
They even lease the berries on the bushes in some cases, she said.
Hendricks estimated that as many as 25 percent of the cases her agency has handled involve repeat offenders. However, she said confidentiality agreements mean she can’t provide information about specific instances.
Meanwhile, Sarah Swider, an associate professor of sociology at Wayne State University, argues that new laws making legal immigration harder are changing migrant patterns for the worse.
She said tightened borders have made what’s called “circular migration” – historically the most common migratory pattern – increasingly difficult.
Workers cross the Mexican-U.S. border to harvest crops in season, many times illegally. Then they return home once the season’s over, making their way back to the U.S. once crops bloom again.
But now families are often unable to return home after crossing the border, she said. “They have to make a choice. Either they bring their whole family here and they’re stuck, illegally, without having access to health or education, or they leave their families behind.”
That creates what Swider calls “permanently temporary migrants. Families get torn apart,”
She said, “It creates a kind of instability. You have a growing group of migrants who are not allowed to become citizens of their new country.
“First we blame them for not contributing, then we set up the conditions for them to not be able to contribute,” she said. “Denying basic citizenship” causes that. “If we haven’t already seen the conditions decline, we’re going to continue to see it.”
Meanwhile, the Agriculture and Rural Development Department has received more control over in-season housing inspections of the 850 licensed camps previously inspected by the U.S. Department of Labor. The state hadn’t conducted in-season inspections for more than 10 years.
The department now has nine regional inspectors who won’t issue licenses if camps are found to be substandard. But Mark Swartz, who oversees inspections, said farmers aren’t penalized as harshly they were when inspections were federal.
“We’re not necessarily punitive,” Swartz said.
He added that the department recognizes that housing is often damaged, and doesn’t hold farmers solely accountable for disrepair.
It can impose a fine of up to $1,000 per day for operating without a license, and producers can’t forcibly evict tenants to avoid racking up more fines.
Swartz said fines are often waived if an owner agrees to pay $4,000 for improvements to his or her camp.
The minimum wage law is enforced by the state Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs and the U.S. Labor Department.
Due to time constraints, inspectors often don’t return to verify that camp owners have upgraded their facilities to meet state requirements, the new Civil Rights report said.
None of the state housing inspectors are fluent in Spanish, it said.
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By MICHAEL GERSTEIN