A dozen years ago, on a sunny September afternoon, I went to a picnic hosted by the elementary school my two children attended at the time. It was a meet and greet for families. I had the pleasure of sitting next to a Hispanic mother of two bright and beautiful children. Their family had lived in the area for years and her husband was locally employed.
It was the first day of school — a half-day, where in the morning the children are shown their classrooms to meet their teachers and classmates, and they undergo a routine head lice check by a school nurse.
This is where things went wrong for my new Hispanic friend. Her children had been singled out, as they had been every year, for harboring head lice. They were being targeted based on their Hispanic heritage along with the many migrant families that seasonally live in our community. They were told they were more-or-less “dirty” and sent home from school.
Their young mother was hurt and angry, and rightly so. She told me she was instructed to treat her children for lice before they could return to school and have them inspected upon their return. She, knowing they were lice-free, instead chose to return them for inspection with no treatment, and the nurse proclaimed them vermin free.
Fast forward to 2012 and things have not changed much for Hispanic families in Michigan, whether they be migrant workers or year-round residents. Discrimination abounds, especially among seasonal workers.
If you are an urbanite, you may think this is primarily a rural and agricultural problem, but that simply isn’t so. Wayne, Oakland, Washtenaw, Monroe, and Macomb Counties account for a whopping 302.6 million dollars of the statewide 71.3 billion in annual agri-business. Farming is the number two industry in the state, and it’s more reliable than manufacturing as a steady economic base. It employs 600,000 people. The state is second only to California in crop diversity, with twelve of Michigan’s crops being number one in the nation. Many of these crops are dependent on seasonal workers to harvest them by hand. Farmers could not survive without this workforce, nor could our struggling economy.
We need migrants more than they need us.
This workforce also needs a place to live. Michigan currently has about 850 migrant housing locations, with about 4,400 living units to house around 22,000 people.
Yet, in the quaint Village of Elberta, Michigan, just south of Frankfort on the Lake Michigan shoreline, open hostility towards guestworkers is alive and well. Nestled in Benzie County, a mostly rural area with two major industries, tourism and farming, the village has become a hotbed of racial discrimination.
Elberta fruit grower Loy Putney recently applied to his village council for a permit to convert a vacant motel into guestworker housing. In a public meeting last month a member of the village council said, on the record, that he didn’t want some “Rhubarb” to come into town and open a “trash house”. The council subsequently attempted to hold a hearing on the matter, but not enough council members even attended to call the meeting to order, let alone vote on the matter. At that failed meeting, someone, who has yet to be identified, placed copies of a news article about the beheading of Mexican drug traffickers, leaving the attendees to believe that Farmer Putney’s migrant workers were part of a drug cartel. Putney is suing the village claiming discrimination.
Elberta is not an isolated incident. Last year in Port Sheldon, Michigan, a blueberry farmer similarly attempted to set-up a modular housing unit for his seasonal workers when someone (anonymously of course) started distributing a rather repugnant flier saying that these workers would be illegal aliens with possible criminal intent. The flier was rather explicit in its content.
It probably comes as no surprise that Michigan lawmakers crafted an Arizona-style immigration law, HB 4305, which is currently stalled in the judicial committee as they await the fall-out from the Arizona law. While Michigan farmers should certainly only be hiring documented workers, it seems the true intent of these kinds of laws is nothing more than thinly veiled racism. We often hear the argument that these seasonal employees are taking jobs away from local workers. In fact, Michigan’s agricultural industry is having trouble finding enough year round employees for their non-field positions. While an aging agri-business workforce is retiring, young people are just not applying for these jobs in areas such as marketing and sales, and accounting and finance. So, to imply that seasonal workers are stealing jobs is a bit of a stretch.
However, there are occasional abuses of the federal H2A program which allows farmers to hire guestworkers. Currently there is a dispute in Coldwater, Michigan at the Mastronardi Produce plant. They are one of the world’s largest year-round indoor producers of hydroponic tomatoes. The company is hiring seasonal workers to run a non-seasonal agri-business. Some local full-time employees lost their jobs and they contend they were replaced with seasonal help. A complaint was filed and remains pending at the U.S. Department of Labor.
Is this indicative of some endemic local worker job displacement scheme? Not likely. It can be argued that this is more of an isolated regulatory matter than a widespread migrant problem.
Migrant workers, on the other hand, face very real and myriad problems of their own as outlined in a 2010 report compiled by the Michigan Civil Liberties Commission. Their investigation of the conditions faced by seasonal workers in Michigan paints a disturbing picture of a systemic failure of the state to address even the most basic needs of this critical group of workers.
They studied migrant working and living conditions and found substandard housing such as structural defects, exposed wiring, lack of running water, overcrowding, poor sanitation, and locations that are too close to fields where pesticides are sprayed. And their working conditions were not any better. They often lacked a source of drinking water along with toilet and hand-washing facilities. There were reports of some farmers even charging the guestworkers for water. Some workers complained they were denied breaks altogether. There were additional abuses of wage laws where farmers would pay “piece rates” which added up to less than minimum wage. Some farmers refused to hire english speaking workers because they knew those conversant in the language were more likely to know the law and file a complaint. Frequently there was no child care available, and with an estimated 40 to 50 per cent of the migrant population being children or elderly, this adds up to a serious family crisis.
Discrimination and language barriers compound the day-to-day difficulties found in the migrant community. Seasonal workers are often unable to access basic public services, healthcare, and law enforcement assistance. In fact, numerous reports of police racially profiling drivers were found, not to mention the mistreatment and racism they face in their guest communities at large as so shamefully exampled by Elberta and Port Sheldon.
The Michigan Farm Bureau disputes the findings of this report stating that the vast majority of farmers and communities are welcoming to their seasonal workers and that these violations of the law and human decency are anomalies. They worry that these kinds of testimonials found in the report will harm Michigan’s image as a state friendly to guestworkers.
They are right to worry that the reported bad living and working conditions combined with draconian Arizona-like laws could drive away our seasonal workforce, without which the number two industry in Michigan will tank as surely as the auto industry did. That should be of concern to everyone.
Yet the politics of racism persist in Michigan at the peril of all.
Amy Kerr Hardin