LANSING – Five years after a report called migrant working conditions “intolerable,” Michigan is far from addressing its problems, the state’s civil rights director says.
“The migrant farmworker situation in this state, my opinion, is not as good as it should be,” said Matt Wesaw, executive director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.
Wesaw, who said he worked in the fields of Southwest Michigan alongside migrant workers as a boy 40 years ago, believes housing conditions for workers are worse now than they were then.
“You look at the conditions today, you’ve got a lot of mobile homes that are no longer suitable for other families,” said Wesaw. “But they would be brought onto these farms, hooked up, and you would have multiple families, unrelated, multiple families, living in there. Or you would have a number of mixed-gender single folks living there."
Michigan has nearly 10 million acres of land used by more than 50,000 farms, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. More than 1,800 of those farms made more than $1 million in sales last year, and many of them depend on migrant workers to harvest crops.
A 1983 federal law lays out protections for migrant workers in areas such as wages, housing and recordkeeping. But the law has not been effectively enforced, experts say, allowing employers to take advantage of migrant workers.
“It’s hard to make these laws hold growers or employers accountable, and that’s because of the enforcement of it,” said Rene Rosenbaum, an associate professor in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Michigan State University. “I think that for the most part it has been a hands-off type of approach to addressing the issue.”
In 2010, the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, following an investigation that included testimony and in-person inspections of farms, released 15 recommendations to improve conditions.
The initial report uncovered inadequate wages, “appalling” living conditions, and poor oversight. It detailed how workers and their families lived in overcrowded houses plagued with exposed wires, structural defects and poor sanitation.
Although some progress has been made, like the creation of the Interagency Migrant Services Committee that brings together federal, state and local agencies once a month to discuss current issues, officials said there is still more to be done.
Progress has been slow because enforcement is underfunded, Wesaw said. For instance, he said, there aren’t enough inspectors to fulfill a recommendation that housing be checked while workers are living there, instead of before they move in.
Workers are also reluctant to report problems for fear of retribution, Wesaw said. Many workers will not come forward unless the situation has become dire or it is the end of the season, said Teresa Hendricks-Pitsch, executive director for Migrant Legal Aid in Grand Rapids. If workers are undocumented, they are even less likely to come forward, she said.
Housing provided by farmers, or labor camps, is not the only concern when it comes to housing problems, said Rosenbaum. Including children, about 90,000 migrants come into Michigan every year, but only 20,000 live in labor camps provided by growers, he said.
Not all growers provide housing, said Marcelina Trevino-Savala, attorney at the Michigan Department of Civil Rights. As a result, many workers have to find their own housing, which is tricky because of their transient nature.
Many of the non-labor camp houses are inspected like labor camps, said Trevino-Savala. But licensing laws only apply if the site houses five or more migrant workers. Rosenbaum said this leaves a lot of people unprotected.
“A lot of people complain about the farm labor housing that is provided by the growers,” Rosenbaum said. “But it is important to recognize that it’s only maybe a quarter of what is needed, and we have to worry about the other three-quarters.”
There is an emerging trend of farmers working around the housing licensing system and reducing costs by housing workers in dilapidated motels or busing them in from cities, Hendricks-Pitsch said.
CHEYNA ROTH writes for Michigan State University's Capital News Service.