HARTFORD — The makeup of farmworkers in Michigan has changed a lot over the last three years.

But what hasn’t changed, experts say, are the challenging conditions that they face.

“The work that we do at FLS has shown us the conditions for farmworkers are no better today than 10 years ago, even decades ago,” said Olivia Villegas, a supervising staff attorney with Farmworker Legal Services (FLS). “Farmworkers live in institutional and societal structures that work against them.”

Villegas was one of several experts, who has experience with the migrant and seasonal farmworker community, to testify in front of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission (MCRC) recently in Hartford.

The public hearing was held to hear about and discuss the conditions these farmworkers face on a day to day basis.

The MCRC held one of these hearings in 2009 before launching an investigation, and report in 2010, on the conditions seasonal and migrant farmworkers face in Michigan.

The way of life

Villegas grew up in a farmworker family. Her father, at 73 years old, is still working in agriculture because he couldn’t save for retirement.

“I invited my father to come to this and speak directly to all of you about his experiences as a farmworker,” she said. “But unfortunately he was unwilling to do so. He didn’t feel safe speaking out in public.”

Someone who did speak out at the public hearing was Ava – a college student at Western Michigan University.

Ava shared her family’s experience as migrant farmworkers. She grew up spending nine months of the year in Holland, Mich., and the other three in Texas.

“During that time I’d get behind in school,” she said. “I would come back to Michigan and have to learn the subjects that my classmates had already learned.”

Ava said her family of six often struggled with housing. She often had to share beds with her siblings.

“My dad would work outside under all weather conditions. He works in a nursery, so it’d be snowing or pouring the rain, or the sun was out,” she said.

Her father often missed her and her siblings’ school events.

“I had the opportunity to work picking blueberries last year. I had the choice not to, but I wanted to see what it was like for the workers,” she said. “It was really hard because it was really hot outside and it’s so exhausting because you have to tie a bucket around your waste and be standing up at all times.”

She said she wasn’t able to do it and lasted only four 5-hour days at the job.

“I can only imagine what the workers who actually have to be out there for the whole day go through,” Ava said. “I don’t have kids, but I can imagine the people who do and aren’t able to spend time with them because they have to be out in all conditions getting money to support their family.”

Patricia Raymon, the recently retired director of the Telamon Michigan Migrant Head Start location in Hartford, said that in her nearly 40 years as a migrant educator she’s seen this fear and struggling the whole time, especially when it comes to getting health care and other social services.

“We usually see there is a big fear of going to the migrant clinic and other clinics to receive services for medical care,” she testified. “The families are fearful of getting stopped, whether documented or undocumented. Our program requires the children get physicals and be up to date on their immunizations and dental services, so it is a challenge getting these taken care of.”

Raymon said being able to offer some services at the Migrant Head Start location has helped these families be more comfortable, but they still have to travel to get to the building.

“The other big thing that is affecting families is immigration and the issues that we’re facing all around the state and the country at this point,” she said. “They are afraid to travel whether they’re documented or not. This is locally, but also if they’re traveling across the country. Most of our families come from Florida and they’re afraid to travel from Florida to Michigan because they may be stopped.”

Immigration

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, about half of all hired crop farmworkers lack legal immigration status.

Jose-Ernesto Lopez, a paralegal with the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center (MIRC), said there are estimates that up to 70 percent, or 1.1 million workers of the U.S. farm labor workforce, is undocumented.

“When we take a look at our state, it’s estimated that our state is home to more than 126,000 undocumented immigrants,” he said.

Fred Leitz, of Leitz Farms in Sodus, said that’s a big reason farmers are turning to H-2A workers. H-2A refers to a type of visa that allows a foreign national to enter the United States for temporary or seasonal agricultural work.

“The farms that are using H-2A would not be effected (by an illegal immigration crackdown) because they’re using documented workers. The ones who aren’t using H-2A workers might run into that,” he said. “It used to be that way here too, but now that we’re using mostly H-2A they all have visas and have been vetted by various United States departments.”

He said he’s seen the program grow exponentially over the last three years because it’s the most viable way to get reliable workers.

“There are H-2A workers from Africa, Europe, Canada, and while most are coming from south of our border, they are glad to be here because they made $10 a day in Mexico,” Leitz said. “The wage rate for them this year is $13.54 an hour, so they make more in a week here than a month in Mexico, and they come up here legally – that’s what they really like.”

Farmers must pay for transportation to and from the foreign country, and provide housing and meals.

“They tell me, ‘Why would we want to come across illegally when we can do it legally?” Leitz said.

Leitz said he’s spoken with his workers and they don’t like what’s going on at the Southern boarder, either.

“When you talk to the Hispanics that have been here for 20 years, they don’t like to see the mass migration coming into this country,” he said. “It’s not a fear for their jobs or anything. They’ve been here long enough that they believe we need to know who’s in our country and they’ve heard that if something happens, they get blamed for it too.”

Lopez said it’s important to remember the important role that immigrants, documented or undocumented, play in the agricultural industry.

“The manual labor they provide is critical for many reasons, but mainly because machines cannot be used effectively to pick up all of the crops therefore growers must rely on human labor,” he said.

Shifts in workforce

The H-2A program was created in the 1990s to help agricultural employers bring temporary foreign workers into the United States to do seasonal work that domestic workers could not or were not willing to do.

Leitz said that’s another reason why he and other farmers have been going to H-2A workers.

“The domestic workers that were working in agriculture are doing better jobs now that the economy is growing by leaps and bounds,” he said. “I talked to a couple of small growers today that aren’t in the program and wish they were because they don’t have any help this year. Most larger growers are going to use the program because when you have all your money out in the field and no one to pick. You need people to pick it.”

Along with trying to get more documented workers, farmers are turning to H-2A also because of a decrease in migrant workers. 

An aging farmworker population and the uneasiness to travel has contributed to this.

Lopez said in Michigan alone, there’s been a 30 percent increase in farmers using the H-2A program in the last 10 years.

“The shift toward the H-2A program is the result of the perceived lack of available farmworkers, despite numerous seasonal and migrant farmworkers who seek employment,” he said. “The H-2A program is supposed to protect this workforce, that’s the fundamental purpose of it: to employ US workers over foreign ones.”

Under the federal H-2A program, farmers are required to advertise in local newspapers for job openings before accepting foreign workers. 

Leitz said he has 172 H-2A workers and still employs a number of domestic seasonal workers who come back every year.

Pushing out families

Villegas and Lopez said they hear all the time about seasonal and migrant workers being told by their employers not to bother coming back the next year because they’re going to rely solely on H-2A workers.

“We see that migrant, seasonal and immigrant farmworkers hold a tremendous presence in the agricultural industry, yet there have been concerted efforts to curtail their participation,” Lopez said. “That’s why it’s important to have a study that aims to explain parts of these phenomenon we’re experiencing in Michigan.”

Lopez said he suspects the “quasi labor shortage” that is talked about is facilitated by a concerted effort by the agricultural industry to replace current farm worker labor force with foreign workers, impacting the number of migrant farmworker families traveling to Michigan.

“I worked on an outreach day recently where I talked with many H-2A workers and I asked if they saw families living at their camps,” he said. “Almost all of them said no. At one camp, the H-2A workers told me they hadn’t seen families in recent years.”

Villegas said just a few weeks ago she spoke with parents and children at Migrant Head Start in Hartford about their rights.

“Before I even had the chance to explain the rights of U.S. workers to be considered for jobs before and after H-2A workers are brought in to the US, a parent in the audience raised their hand and asked if it was legal for an employer to tell its workers they had to let them go for H-2A workers the employer was bringing in,” she said.

Villegas said when she looked around the room, there were nods of agreement knowing that this happens consistently more and more.

She said FLS gets calls from farmworkers about people getting displaced all the time, but also wage issues, unfulfilled promises of work, pesticide exposure and retaliation.

Reporting bad conditions

Villegas said her dad was afraid of retaliation from his employer when he was hurt on the job recently.

“He was hesitant to file a workers compensation claim,” she said. “I’m afraid that if I or FLS hadn’t have been able to step in and advocate for him, he would have undoubtedly returned to work with his injuries and without claiming the benefits. Most farm workers in Michigan don’t have a daughter to help them navigate the system.”

Lopez said another reality for farmworkers is sexual assault and harassment.

“It’s more prevalent than anyone wants to admit,” he said. “Some have estimated that as many as one out of eight female farmworkers will experience sexual harassment in the workplace.”

MIRC will represent these farmworkers if they are brave enough to come forward and know that they are protected.

“The Elliot Larson Civil Rights Act (ELCRA) protects against sexual harassment in any workplace,” he said. “But it’s hard for them to access it because of language and logistical barriers to file the complaint, short statute of limitations to file the complaint and the very real fear female workers have of retaliation.”

He said another barrier is immigration status.

“Though everyone has rights regardless of immigration status, the realities of being an undocumented farmworker cannot be underscored,” Lopez said. “We saw one female farmworker’s immigration status be used as a defense in a criminal case where the defense made the callous argument that our client made the sexual assault claim as a way of obtaining an immigration benefit.”

Lopez said it’s not just the domestic workers who have the potential to be treated poorly. He shared the story of a labor trafficking case in which an H-2A worker, who started legally in Georgia, was brought to Michigan and made to work under false documentation.

“He and about 20 other workers were forced to live in a two-bedroom house in Ottawa County,” Lopez said. “He described to us that there were no beds or furniture in the house. He slept on the floor along with his other coworkers. He later told us that he and his coworkers worked 14-16 a day and ate one meal a day because all of the stores were closed by the time they got out of work.”

Lopez said some of the stories he has may seem like extreme outliers, but at MIRC, they know they are only hearing from the farmworkers who could no longer take it.

“The price these farmworkers pay in coming forward is real,” Lopez said. “Many lose their jobs despite protections in ELCRA against retaliation. Many have to live with being cross examined every time they tell their story.”

The effects

Raymon said now that there’s been a shift to seasonal domestic workers, they’re still facing a lot of the same issues that migrant farmworkers do.

“Staying in Michigan means seasonal workers might not be able to qualify for some of services they could have in the past, and housing is an issue for them,” she said. “A lot of them are afraid to apply for services they might be eligible for because of the fear of traveling or giving their name to the different agencies. One of the biggest fears that our families has is the fear of deportation and having the family separated.”

Raymon said she’s seen a lot of cases in which the father has been deported, leaving the mother and the children, who are U.S. born, here to fend for themselves.

“That puts a whole different hardship for the families,” she said. “There’s a lot those families have to endure to continue this lifestyle, but for a lot of them that’s what they were born into and what they continue to do. I think they’re remarkable people that continue to do this, but yet want the betterment for their families and education for their children.”

Lopez agreed many of these families face the same challenges as decades ago.

“Farm work still tends to be physically grueling, mentally demanding and not well paid, and it continues to be the most dangerous occupation in the U.S.,” he said.

Contact: anewman@TheHP.com, 932-0357, Twitter: @HPANewman