By LAURA FOSMIRE
Capital News Service
LANSING – Without drastic action, Michigan could jeopardize billions of dollars of revenue for the agriculture industry if migrant farm workers don’t return, a state commission warned.
A recent report by the Civil Rights Commission showed that some migrants live in substandard housing and face poor working conditions and racial profiling.
The state has about 35,000 migrant farm workers and an additional 33,000 non-workers who live in the same households. The major crops they work with include apples, cauliflower, grapes, broccoli, cherries, tomatoes and green onions.
“We did find some decent conditions, but we also found some very troubling conditions,” said Harold Core, director of public relations for the Department of Civil Rights.
“There was some housing that looked like a strong wind could blow it over,” he said. “We found some trailers that either had no power or, if they did, was in the form of exposed and hanging wires. One family turned on their faucet and muddy water came out of it.”
However, the report suggests the problems are more prevalent than they are, said Ken Nye, commodity specialist with the Michigan Farm Bureau.
“We’re afraid the report is slanted,” he said. “Many farms in Michigan do provide housing for migrant workers as a part of the working agreement, when other states may not do that.
“And the vast majority of housing is inspected and passes inspection,” Nye said. “The report focuses on small problem areas.”
A 2006 study by the Julian Samora Research Institute at Michigan State University counted 1,125 migrant workers in Macomb County and 611 in Lapeer County. Other counties with significant migrant populations include Oceana County with 3,321 workers, Ottawa County with 4,643 and Van Buren County with 3,002.
Ruben Martinez, director of the Julian Samora Research Institute, said the numbers have not changed substantially since then, but the trend of workers has.
“It used to be that Michigan was a family-oriented state,” he said. “Now you’re seeing more single males coming to work. That means that the housing has to be changed to accommodate more single males and less family units.”
The findings in the Civil Rights Commission’s 2010 report were based on testimony from migrant workers and conditions Core saw himself.
“We had people saying they were racially profiled by law enforcement,” he said. “Migrants were not welcome in some stores or some hospitals or some things of that nature. There were language barriers that we saw.”
According to Core, the report isn’t intended to represent all of Michigan’s migrant farm working conditions, but it does indicate problems to be addressed.
Core said that if the conditions presented in the report persist, migrants may choose other states to work.
“Most of our workers come from other states within the U.S.,” he said. “If the conditions start to slide too much, they may opt for other states in the Midwest with a similar harvesting season.”
A dwindling workforce could have devastating effects on the state’s economy, Core said.
“There’s so many crops in the agriculture industry, whether it’s picking fruit or harvesting crops by hand, that can’t be done by machines,” he said. “They’re dependent on migrant labor.”
Core said the commission recommended ways to improve migrants’ living conditions, including better housing inspections.
The Farm Bureau’s Nye said that the Department of Agriculture inspects housing to ensure satisfactory living conditions.
“But with the current financial state, that’s hard to do,” he said. “The houses have to be inspected before people move in, so it has to be timely. And more and more inspectors are retiring, or have to be let go because of funding problems.”
Nye said there’s been a significant effort to keep up with the regular inspections.
“If there truly are substandard conditions, it’s something to be concerned about,” he said. “We know every facility every year is inspected and they are all expected to meet the requirements. So if somebody thinks it’s substandard, that’s a problem.”
The research institute’s Martinez agreed that funding for the housing inspections has become a large problem.
“The inspecting program used to get funding around $800,000, but now that has decreased to $400,000,” he said. “Sometimes they even charge a fee to farm owners who do provide housing.”
The Julian Samora Research Institute’s 2006 study found that the 35,000 migrants in Michigan accounted for 58 percent of the total revenue brought in from agriculture that year, more than $6 billion.
“You’re talking about $3 billion of economic value is dependent on migrants being here,” Core said.
He added that researchers also found that migrants spend between 50 and 75 percent of their wages in local communities, generating income for businesses.
The Farm Bureau’s Nye agreed that it’s important to maintain good conditions for migrant workers so that they return each year.
“If you treat them well, they come back. We have to be good stewards of our employees so they will treat you as an employer well by working hard. It’s about having a good working relationship,” he said.
© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.
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By LAURA FOSMIRE