State needs to better protect migrant workers

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Have you ever stopped to think: “Where does my food come from?” or “What did it take to get that nutritiously delicious produce perfectly stacked in our grocery store aisles?” For most West Michigan residents, these questions have probably never even crossed our minds. Yet, scattered among the rural lands of West Michigan are over 600 migrant labor housing sites, better known as “migrant camps.” Almost 16,000 migrant workers labor day in and day out, harvesting fruits and vegetables so we can have the privilege of putting them on our family’s table. We fail to realize there are human beings behind every apple, every strawberry, every single produce item picked and supplied for us in our local grocery stores, and these human beings often live and work in brutal conditions.

Migrant workers often bring their families with them as they migrate to each location for work. In the U.S., 51% of migrant workers are parents, and 66% of these migrant parents bring their children along with them. This can create multifaceted health and social challenges for migrant children. This was true for Aide Lamas, a Grand Rapids resident whose father and mother were migrant workers. Lamas said growing up, she would travel with her family to different sites. This was hard on her childhood, as she would frequently move from school to school and could never fully settle in or make friends. Additionally, the long hours migrant workers face are extremely challenging for a family, and this was the case for Lamas’ family, too.

Compared to other parts of the state, West Michigan employs the most migrant workers (and their families), who live in a variety of housing structures that can consist of trailers, huge barracks, multiplex row units or houses. Living and working conditions can vary depending on the site, even though the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) employs seven regional inspectors who are tasked with migrant housing licensing. There are many health and safety concerns for this population, such as unsafe structures, water and sanitation, along with rodent or bedbug infestations, open sewer pits, pesticide exposure and much more.

The health and safety issues migrant workers face might be new knowledge to many West Michigan residents, but it is nothing new to Migrant Legal Aid, a nonprofit that has been fighting for the rights of migrant workers since 1973. Its mission is “growing justice to protect the dignity, health and livelihood of migrant farmworkers.” Legal Aid focuses on an array of issues, such as wage protection, child and family nutrition, food security, health and welfare, along with workplace and housing safety.

Executive Director Teresa Hendricks said the biggest environmental health concern migrant workers face is exposure to harsh pesticides. There have been multiple cases of farmworkers developing cancer and getting sick with other diseases directly related to this exposure. Additionally, the concern for drift exposure and contact transfer of pesticides is a concern for other family members living on the sites, especially children, whose bodies and brains still are developing. 

Through the policy and advocacy work of the Migrant Clinicians Network, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) restricted use of extremely harsh pesticides and revised the Worker Protection Standards (WPS) in 2015 to provide important protection measures.

Hendricks said pesticide exposure has gone down somewhat due to the revised WPS and the improvement in trainings, record keeping, physical protection for workers (i.e., respirator fit testing) and hazard communication. However, she said she has not seen a widespread adoption or consistent enforcement of the WPS overall. This has led to other issues across the state, such as improper pesticide poisoning reports and a lack of consistent site investigations.

Currently, the organizations that are meant to be protecting these workers are not. There needs to be more ownership and funding from the state of Michigan to have consistent execution of the WPS at all migrant camps. Additionally, the systems between clinicians, Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MIOSHA) and MDARD need to be aligned to intentionally work together to protect migrant workers better. These three entities need to improve on working together to properly report pesticide poisoning, provide funding for WPS education and enforcement, and maintain consistent and equitable site investigations.

West Michigan can do better, too. We need to keep in mind families are risking their lives to get us food. They are working in an extreme industry with extreme hours and conditions for low wages. They deserve better living and working conditions. We can advocate for this locally by encouraging restaurants to participate in the Fair Food Program, which works to prevent the inhumane conditions embedded into the agricultural environment by partnering with farmers, farmworkers and food companies to prioritize proper wages and conditions for the workers. Additionally, we can volunteer with Migrant Legal Aid and have conversations about the migrant worker community with family, friends and neighbors to grow awareness.

It’s easy to walk past the produce section at Meijer and not give a second thought to where it came from. We have the privilege of “out of sight, out of mind.” But the next time you’re in Meijer getting your pints of blueberries or strawberries, I challenge you to stop and put a face with those items. Spend a minute thinking of the migrant worker who spent hours in inhumane conditions day after day, just so you could eat those blueberries or strawberries. Let’s do better, West Michigan. Let’s challenge ourselves and each other to be aware of the issues migrant farmworkers face; let’s provide support and advocate for them to have better conditions. It’s what they deserve as human beings. 

Grand Rapids resident Lauren Czarnowczan, a certified health education specialist, is pursuing a Master of Public Health degree at the University of Indianapolis.

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