By JENNIFER CHEN
Capital News Service
LANSING – The state is urging farmers to use its recruitment system to find migrant and seasonal labor to harvest such crops as cucumbers, cherries and strawberries.
The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and the Workforce Development Agency are promoting what they say is the underused Agricultural Recruitment System.
The push to find workers through centralized job postings comes despite the state’s high jobless rate.
The number of unemployed people in the state is 431,490, which is 0.8 percent higher than the national rate, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But agricultural employment specialists say the farmers are still seeking seasonal labor.
“The goal of this program is to remove some of the red tape, making it easier for farmers to locate and hire migrant and seasonal workers and get their products into the marketplace,” said Belen Ledezma, the director of Migrant, Immigrant and Seasonal Worker Services at the Workforce Development Agency.
Other advocates of the recruitment system say it encourages better housing and guarantees wage rates.
However, some farm labor experts are skeptical about the system.
“You might skip the steps to recruit local and intra-state workers and go directly to interstate efforts and save the state taxpayers the largely futile wasted effort,” said Baldemar Velásquez, president of the National Farm Labor Organizing Committee, based in Toledo, Ohio.
He said the short-term farm jobs for most crops in the state are not attractive to local workers looking to support their families year round.
“Farm jobs also pay lower wages and are backbreaking,” he said.
The system gives priority to potential workers living within 65 miles of a farm needing employees, but also recruits beyond and even out of state.
It requires employers to provide no-cost migrant housing licensed by the department. Employers also must comply with federal and state laws on wage rates, health and safety.
“The department works to ensure the state’s seasonal and migrant workers have good living conditions through its migrant housing inspection program,” said Mark Swartz, its Resources Conservation Section manager.
“There are 4,400 migrant housing units in Michigan and we inspect them all on an annual basis.”
Although the system has been in place for more than 25 years, farmers have seldom used it because few knew about it, Ledezma said.
Ledezma said it is a valuable tool for helping Michigan’s agricultural employers find the workers they need.
But Velásquez said he is doubtful about the promises of the system.
“Assuring wage guarantees is also elusive because many agricultural employers in the state rely on labor contractors to secure their labor force. They are complicit with ‘coyotes’ and other types of smugglers with a largely undocumented workforce,” he said.
“So many of these workers are working off their fees while growers are oblivious as they pay them through the labor contractors,” he continued.
Farmers can receive assistance from agricultural employment specialists at Michigan Works! Association offices in Adrian, Bay City, Dowagiac, Fremont, Holland, Ionia, Lapeer, Ludington, Paw Paw, Shelby, Sparta and Traverse City.
© 2012, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Nonmembers cannot reproduce CNS articles without written permission.
By JENNIFER CHEN