The Speed-Up in the Fields

Stephen Franklin

KALA­MA­ZOO, MICH. – Amid the gen­tle rolling hills and lush emer­ald green fields of Michigan’s bucol­ic farm belt, the news is not so good.

Not from the farm­work­ers.

They say the fields are jammed with too many work­ers so every­one is scram­bling to scrape by. They com­plain that the farm­ers have upped the pro­duc­tion quo­tas for blue­ber­ries so reg­u­lars who can’t keep up are get­ting let go.

But even if they meet the quo­tas, they say the price of blue­ber­ries has come down so much, they can bare­ly earn the min­i­mum wage.

And then there are the prob­lems fac­ing fam­i­lies.

Whole fam­i­lies are get­ting jammed into the same hous­ing with young men, which is not right, not right at all, they say.

They fam­i­lies say the farm­ers are hir­ing more young men and get­ting rid of them, because the farm­ers were spooked by a tele­vi­sion expose last year of under­age chil­dren work­ing in the fam­i­lies in the fields. The farm­ers also pre­fer the young men, the fam­i­lies say, because they are eas­i­er to stuff into camp hous­ing and because they are less like to speak up. Many are with­out papers and many came from south­ern Mex­i­co, where they speak their indige­nous lan­guages first and then Span­ish.

This is what they are hear­ing at the office here of Farm­work­er Legal Ser­vices, which helps many of the 90,000 migrant work­ers and their fam­i­lies who strug­gle to earn a liv­ing from ear­ly Spring to late Fall in Michi­gan.

There are sev­er­al rea­sons why this sum­mer is dif­fer­ent, say work­ers at the legal ser­vices office.

There are some new­com­ers to the fields – unem­ployed work­ers will­ing to do the jobs oth­ers shun – who are com­plain­ing about abu­sive work con­di­tions that oth­ers grudg­ing­ly learned to put up with years ago.

And there are the long-time reg­u­lars who are upset by changes that have made life in the fields more com­pet­i­tive, and even more dif­fi­cult than before.

The new­com­ers com­plain about long hours in the sun with­out drink­ing water or field bath­rooms or even shade for short breaks. And the reg­u­lars com­plain about impos­si­ble to achieve pro­duc­tion quo­tas, about los­ing mon­ey when their fruit buck­ets are incor­rect­ly weighed in the fields or about get­ting cheat­ed out of their wages.

Some of the reg­u­lars are fam­i­lies who have made a life of trav­el­ing between Texas and Michi­gan, going from one pick­ing sea­son to anoth­er. More than half of the migrants who come to Michi­gan also have papers, accord­ing to Megan Reynolds, an attor­ney in the legal ser­vice office.

It’s the drop in what farm­ers are pay­ing for blue­ber­ries that espe­cial­ly hurts the farm­work­ers, says Reynolds. Two years ago they were get­ting 50 cents for one pound buck­ets. But nowa­days they are get­ting close to 35 cents per buck­et.

That has forced many to work through their lunch hour or work off the clock,” she explains.

The fact that the farm­work­ers are call­ing to report prob­lems doesn’t mean they will file com­plaint reports about unlaw­ful con­di­tions.

Indeed, there’s a big dif­fer­ence between point­ing out a prob­lem and pub­licly fil­ing a com­plaint about it, says Reynolds.

Tom Thorn­burg, head of the Farm­work­er Legal Ser­vices office, knows from years of expe­ri­ence that farm work­ers often suf­fer in silence. They fret about los­ing the work or wor­ry that that the crew boss will call Immi­gra­tion on them if they do not have papers.

Or they will shirk off com­plain­ing about an injury as long as they can get back to work. Reynolds tells of a farm­work­er who suf­fered a par­tial paral­y­sis, pos­si­bly from expo­sure to pes­ti­cide. But once the work­er got bet­ter, he was not eager to com­plain, she says.

With the reports from the farm­work­ers, the legal ser­vice work­ers can inves­ti­gate con­di­tions and then alert gov­ern­ment inspec­tors.

But the inspec­tion sys­tem, says Thorn­burg, has plen­ty of prob­lems. He talks of over­worked and under­staffed inspec­tors and of the ter­rif­ic pres­sures they face from farm­ers and farm orga­ni­za­tions.

I know that there are laws that are meant to pro­tect work­ers from 90 per­cent of what they com­plain about and they are not being adhered to,” he says.

Stephen Franklin is a for­mer labor and work­place reporter for the Chica­go Tri­bune, was until recent­ly the eth­nic media project direc­tor with Pub­lic Nar­ra­tive in Chica­go. He is the author of Three Strikes: Labor’s Heart­land Loss­es and What They Mean for Work­ing Amer­i­cans (2002), and has report­ed through­out the Unit­ed States and the Mid­dle East.

Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH