State boosts migrant housing inspections with new staff

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Capital News Service
LANSING — A doubling of state inspectors the past two years has improved housing conditions for Michigan’s migrant workers, according to state officials and worker advocates.
That is a major change from 2009, when a $3 million budget cut shrank the Department of Agriculture’s migrant housing inspection staff from seven to three inspectors.
As a result the department conducted only a couple dozen in-season occupancy inspections during 2009 and 2010.

But efforts have more than doubled since 2013, when the department hired four more inspectors. Since then, officials have completed about 1,800 inspections, including 389 in 2015.
The recent inspections raised more than 1,500 items requiring correction, said Mark Swartz, deputy director of the environmental stewardship division for the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.
Housing conditions of migrant workers have been a concern for years.
About 90,000 migrant workers and their dependents come to the state, according to the 2014 Migrant and Seasonal Farmworkers Progress Report issued by the Michigan Civil Rights Commission.
Few can afford good housing — most migrant workers’ wages keep them far below the poverty line, according to the report. State regulations require adequate housing and a license.
The penalty for operating a housing camp without a license is $1,000 per day with a maximum fine of $10,000.
In the past two years the department has focused on compliance with housing regulations, collecting fines for operating without a license. The agency cannot fine for violations of individual rules. But it uses the fines for operating without a license to encourage compliance, Swartz said. The department will often reduce the fine for operating without a license if the farmer uses the savings to improve the camp site.
The process is a sufficient deterrent, Swartz said, because the department has never caught the same person twice at the same location for operating without a license.
It’s important to inspect housing during the harvest and growing season while workers are living in the buildings, said Tom Thornburg, co-managing attorney for Farmworker Legal Services of Michigan.
“These on-farm labor camps are closed up in the winter,” Thornburg said. “There’s two feet of snow on top of them, and the water has been turned off and the electric. And so when they open these things up in the spring, there’s a lot of work to get them re-opened so all the mechanicals work.”
The increased inspections have resulted in progress at on-farm migrant housing camps since 2013, Thornburg said.
“If a government official is going to come into a place, that’s good news for someone who might feel like they are trapped by an abusive crew leader or employer,” Thornburg said. “So I’m heartened and happy that that result has happened.”
One problem is that most of the improvements have addressed the needs of on-farm housing. But most migrant workers live off of farms, and this housing has not been given the attention it needs, Swartz said.
A focus on off-farm housing, particularly in motels, is important, Thornburg said. But he has yet to see specific, strategic improvements in off-farm housing. Motels often do not have a place to cook meals or eat, do laundry, or grocery shop. Motel rooms are frequently assigned to too many people, Thornburg said.
Swartz says this is changing. The department is working with farm labor contractors to get more than a half dozen off-farm sites into compliance and licensed, Swartz said. The sites the department is working with were found primarily through referrals from Farmworker Legal Services and other organizations.
“The area that we’re looking at most closely right now is that off-farm housing provided by farm labor contractors and trying to bring more of that into the fold so we know that it’s safe and wholesome,” Swartz said.

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