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.

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