Migrant Legal Aid’s Fair Food Pledge works to alleviate migrant farmworker injustices

For Teresa Hendricks, locally grown produce is more than just a farm-to-table product.

“When people think of local food, it might have been grown three miles from where (they live), but somebody might have traveled 3,000 miles to come here to pick it off the tree,” says Hendricks, director and senior litigator for Migrant Legal Aid. “Think about that when we eat local food.”

Even under the best of conditions, seasonal and migrant farmworkers toil long, exhausting hours in extreme weather conditions, possibly exposed to pesticides. 

Then there are abuses migrant farmworkers may face, according to Hendricks, including children working with harmful pesticides; immigrants not being paid for the hours they work; being barred from taking breaks and showers; living in substandard camps; and threats of deportation if they complain about their work conditions.

To mitigate these injustices, Migrant Legal Aid, which has been advocating for migrant workers’ rights since 1973, has the legal muscle of the federal Agricultural Protection Act and its own Fair Food Pledge, a partnership with 422 Michigan participants — food retailers and produce growers — that set standards for treating farm workers fairly and ethically. 

Retailers back Pledge

Locally, major retailers that have signed the Pledge include Walker-based Meijer Inc. and Byron Center-based SpartanNash — which distributes fresh produce from 250 Michigan farms to its more than 145 corporate-owned stores and 2,100 independent customers.

Those who sign the Pledge agree to designate a communications contact to review notices of credible complaints or courtesy alerts of suspected legal violations and/or active labor disputes; to communicate as necessary with a vendor employer suspected of legal violations or labor disputes; and respect the dignity of workers, treating them with fairness and equity, without threat of force, violence, or retaliation. If complaints arise, members of the Pledge are to review and address the complaints and take immediate corrective action if necessary. The full Retailer Fair Food Michigan Pledge can be read here.

The Pledge not only supports compliance with all federal, state and local laws and regulations relevant to migrant and seasonal farmworkers. A designated corporate responsibility representative receives and responds to notices of credible complaints about suspected legal violations or active labor disputes. 

 “By signing the Michigan Fair Food Pledge, SpartanNash pledges to work in partnership with Migrant Legal Aid when Michigan produce suppliers appear to be in violation of regulations requiring fair treatment and safe working conditions,” the company says in a statement. “This includes respecting the dignity of workers, treating them with fairness and equity, and providing fair wages, access to bathrooms and drinking water, and safe, clean housing.”

“That’s the power of joining it (the Pledge),” adds Hendricks. “Know what’s going on and make choices about who you’re buying from.” 

Pocketbook penalties

The pact hits produce growers’ in the pocketbook if violations are confirmed. When fair labor practices for migrant and seasonal farmworkers are violated, growers’ produce will no longer be sold at stores that are part of the Pledge.

“It’s a market-based tool to intervene when systemic labor disputes are going on to stop exploitation in the food chain,” says Hendricks. “It’s more powerful than legal remedies, because legal remedies take a lot of time to work, but the Fair Food Pledge stops exploitation in its tracks.”

Examples of how the Fair Food Pledge has made a difference include mitigating countless cases of bedbug infestations and, in the case of one grower in Van Berrien County, responding to an armed guard preventing Migrant Legal Aid staff from making inspections after reports of abuse.

What makes the pledge so effective is it often reduces the time to achieve the desired goals — sometimes a “courtesy call” to growers is all it takes, says Hendricks, whereas going to court can prove to be a long, drawn-out process.

“Retailers agree to cooperate with us to stop exploitation in its tracks,” says Hendricks. “We talked with Meijer and told them there is a camp or labor harvesting unit that is not allowing us to speak to migrants to see if there is anything wrong (because of the armed guard). I could have gone to court, but that’s an extraordinary remedy that would have taken a lot of work and a lot of time. This was a couple of phone calls (thanks to the Pledge) and it was taken care of, and we were able to speak to the migrant workers.”

Out visiting camps

Migrant workers’ lives are a stark contrast to how others live in the Lakeshore area, Hendricks notes.

“I go from a situation where I feel completely hopeless,” says Hendricks. “They (migrant workers too often) are captive, indentured servants. They live near Lakeshore residents but they are worlds apart from them.”

Hendricks doesn’t just sit in her office. She visits the migrant camps where foreign farmworkers pick and pack produce. In the Lakeshore area, which Hendricks dubs the Fruit Belt, that includes blueberries, squash, apples and asparagus.

“I go over to the camps and talk to the workers and see what’s happening,” says Hendricks. “They’re working from 2 to 3 in the morning until 10 p.m. the next day. There’s no time to shower or eat. They feel captured and are underpaid. Some are getting sick and have no life and are completely controlled in every aspect.”

Most migrant farmworkers have H-2A visas, says Hendricks, which is an agricultural program that allows farm employers who anticipate a shortage of domestic workers to hire workers from other countries.

Some immigrants willingly come to the Lakeshore and other parts of the U.S. because they are given false promises from labor brokers who are paid well to bring in farmworkers from Mexico, Guatemala and Haiti. 

Luis Montes, 18, works for a produce-growing company in Newaygo along with his parents, who arrived here years ago from Mexico to pick apples. Montes was born in the U.S.“They’re told they can make up to $15 an hour, work 30 to 40 hours a week while they’re here from April to November,” says Hendricks. “That’s the sales pitch. It sounds like a lot of money, but then when they get here, there’s a bait and switch. (Farm employers) work them unreasonable hours, control their every movement and often mistreat them in an atmosphere of complete control. If they complain, they’ll get sent back and get blacklisted. It’s not uncommon for them to pay a recruitment fee just to get on the list.”

Racism also a factor

Not all farmworkers are mistreated, but racism can rear its ugly head. Luis Montes, 18, works for a produce-growing company in Newaygo along with his parents, who arrived here years ago from Mexico to pick apples. Montes was born in the U.S.

When Montes was younger, his family would relocate from Georgia to Florida when the apple season here was done, says Montes. Thankfully, those days of moving from one state to another are over because the family worked hard and the company, Riverridge Apple Co., now allows them to live here year-round.

But an incident that could be racially tinted makes Montes pause. His family recently hosted a birthday party for a family whose child turned 1. The celebration included a DJ and a bouncy house — all of which garnered a noise complaint to police from an across-the-road neighbor.

Apparently, the police didn’t arrive soon enough and the neighbor took matters into his own hands, firing rounds at their house. Montes was in his upstairs bedroom when the gunfire was unleashed, and a bullet lodged into his bed frame. He was not injured, but it was a close call.

Montes isn’t certain if the shooting was racially motivated, but he notes the neighbor prominently displays a Confederate flag in his front yard.

“I liked to hope that it wasn’t because of racism,” says Montes. “It’s always tough to tell if it was because of race or they were having a bad day.”

There are repercussions, nonetheless. Montes’ family no longer wishes to live near the gun-toting neighbor, so the money Montes’ parents set aside to pay his tuition at Muskegon Community College now will go toward a mortgage on a house. 

“My parents told me they would help me out as much as they could in college, but they need to put it on hold because of the shooting incident,” Montes says. “Nobody feels safe here anymore. They just found a really nice house, but it really is cutting into my college (tuition) so they can pay the mortgage.”

Read more articles by Paul R. Kopenkoskey.