Washtenaw County group aims to improve conditions and fight injustice for Michigan migrant workers

A group called Washtenaw Solidarity with Farmworkers has been steadily working on amplifying the voices of migrant workers across the county and the state.
Every year, an estimated 45,000 migrant workers come to Michigan to work on local farms. Despite the essential role they play in the local food system, they often face unfair wages, wage theft, immigration issues, sexual harassment, lack of access to health care services, and crowded living quarters. Language barriers and a fear of employer retribution or repatriation often stop migrant workers from speaking out on these injustices — especially if they are undocumented.

But in Washtenaw County, a group called Washtenaw Solidarity with Farmworkers (WSF) has been steadily working on amplifying the voices of migrant workers across the county. The group has about seven core members who work together in a non-hierarchical manner to support farmworker-led campaigns.

"When workers come to Southeastern Michigan, we make sure they know that they're welcome and valued, that there are resources, and that we can help connect them to what they need," says WSF member Rudy Flores. 
WSF member Rudy Flores.
WSF member Kim Daley, who co-founded the group in February 2016, says getting it established has been "a wild ride."

"For a really long time it felt like we were screaming into a dark void," Daley says. "But now more people are starting to really care about how these workers are treated. More people are also realizing that there is a big difference between being a farm owner and a farmworker."

"We should be making them feel loved, cared for, and appreciated"

WSF was founded in support of an organized body of farmworkers in Florida called the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). Daley had already been involved with the worker-based human rights group since she was an undergraduate in Pittsburgh. One of CIW's most notable successes has been getting major businesses who use large quantities of tomatoes to sign on to the Fair Food Program (FFP). Participating companies agree to legal accountability and social responsibility on a number of fronts. Significant among these is the participating companies’ commitment to pay a penny more per pound of tomatoes. To date, signatories include McDonald's, Taco Bell, Chipotle, and Burger King. However, Wendy's continues to be a major holdout.
WSF member Kim Daley.
When Daley started graduate studies at the University of Michigan she saw that there was a Wendy's on campus, but no group pushing for the chain to join the FFP. 

"So essentially, we took a place at the forefront of the local attempts to get Wendy's to sign on in Michigan, and in particular at the University of Michigan," says WSF member and environmentalist Cynthia Price. "They didn't sign, but as of last year they no longer have a presence in the university's Michigan Union. It was a four-year fight and a good victory." 

Over the last 20 years, Price has become well-acquainted with the issues migrant farmworkers face and has been a persistent advocate for the population. The seasoned journalist covered the 2009 Michigan Department of Civil Rights investigations into migrant farmworker conditions. She also co-founded the Greater Grand Rapids Food Systems Council in 2001. One of the first things the council identified as a priority was learning more about farmworkers' experiences and needs.

"We focused there because I'd always had the feeling that they were kind of like the bottom rung, and the way that we treat them is inexcusable," Price says. "These are people who are hard workers. We should be making them feel loved, cared for, and appreciated rather than treating them as outcasts."

The gravity of the challenges and conditions migrant farmworkers endure varies from region to region. 

"Every state either has to come up with guidelines or they don't have any," Daley says. "We're talking about things like minimum wage, limits on child labor, and giving people breaks and water."

Many workers now come to the United States on the H-2A visa program. Price explains that the program has made a difference in two ways. 

"One is that workers with the visa are a little bit more protected from exploitation, particularly the indentured servant-type stuff," she says. "And secondly, for the most part, when once there were lots of families in the camps, now there are more males traveling without their families."

Connecting the camps 

Both Daley and Price defer to Flores, who works primarily as the co-chair of the Southeastern Michigan Migrant Resource Council (SEMMRC), as the WSF member with the most direct insight into current working conditions for farmworkers. It was he who asked WSF members to take on their most recent initiative, a GoFundMe campaign called Connect the Camps. Started last October, the original goal was to raise $15,000 to support internet connectivity at what was once five, but is now (due to a closure) four, migrant camps in Lenawee and Monroe counties. These funds allow WSF to pay the monthly costs of internet services at three newly outfitted camps, as well as the monthly costs at one other camp for which the SEMMRC had already provided internet access. 
WSF member Cynthia Price.
"It was a matter of empathy," Flores says. "We were all going crazy at the beginning of the pandemic. We were isolated from our friends and family and had to rely on the internet so heavily. Imagine what it's like for workers who are away from their families for six to eight months out of the year, even when no pandemic is happening."

Daley was disheartened to hear that folks like Flores would go into camps to talk to workers about their rights or help them secure telehealth services, and have to use their own data or have calls drop. 

"Things like being able to contact our loved ones and getting telehealth care are basic things for a lot of us," Daley says. "But it's just not the case for many migrant workers. So we set to work."

The campaign exceeded its original goal of $15,000 in January, thanks to a large offline donation from Engage Michigan and a number of smaller donations. A new target of $25,000 will allow WSF to pay for multiple years of internet service at some camps and hopefully expand the initiative to other counties in Southeast Michigan.

"I passed them the ball, and boy did WSF ever run with it. I'm in awe of their organizing power," Flores says. 

As interest in replicating Connect the Camps across the state continues to grow, WSF is working to create a roadmap of sorts for others to implement similar projects. WSF members also have an eye toward impacting policy and changing laws.

Price explains that at both the state and national levels, although farmworkers may organize themselves into unions, they do not enjoy the same protections as other workers who unionize.

"Removing that exemption from existing labor laws is something we're going to work on next. I've already spoken to two legislators about changing the law so that there's real peace in forming farmworkers' unions," she says. "I've seen some good changes in the last 20 years, but there is still lots of work to be done."

Jaishree Drepaul-Bruder is a freelance writer and editor currently based in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at jaishreeedit@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.