Inside W. MI migrant camps, outreach group fights for workers

Hispanic Heritage Month

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — If you’ve driven West Michigan’s farm country, you may have caught glimpse of them — clusters of cottages dotting the landscape.

There are more than 600 migrant camps in seven West Michigan counties, including 200 in Kent and Ottawa.

“When families sit down to dinner and enjoy their fresh local food, everything that’s healthy on their plate probably passed first through the hands of a migrant farm worker family,” said Teresa Hendricks, lawyer and executive director at Grand Rapids-based Migrant Legal Aid.

A 2013 study estimated the number of migrant workers employed throughout West Michigan at nearly 16,000, more than any other part of the state.

“I’d like everybody to think about … whose family picked your food and what they went through to get that tomato into your salad,” said Hendricks.

Migrant Legal Aid works to protect the rights of those essential workers, most of whom travel to West Michigan from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Florida and Texas.

Hendrick’s said the agency has been busier than ever this harvest season, visiting camps to ensure growers are following COVID-19 guidelines.

MLA has already filled out and submitted 110 referral forms to the state’s migrant labor housing inspectors, compared to 65 in all of 2019.

The Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development employs seven regional inspectors who are tasked with licensing migrant housing for health and safety.

“We speak mainly about the forms regarding housing issues because those are the easiest to quantify,” explained Mary Bennett, Chief Financial Officer at Migrant Legal Aid.

“We don’t publish the number of cases/calls discussed by attorneys, but there has been a significant increase in calls around harassment, immigration concerns and worker compensation issues. That is on top of our normal wage and hour investigations.”

When a Conklin-area grower’s son was recently caught on camera spewing racist venom at a group of migrant workers, it was Migrant Legal Aid the worker contacted for assistance.

The agency helped the man file a police report, and Ottawa County’s prosecutor charged the farmer’s son with misdemeanor assault for allegedly spitting on a worker.

MLA also filed an appearance with the prosecutor’s office to act as a victim advocate in the case.

News 8 recently accompanied Migrant Legal Aid on visits to five migrant camps in Kent and Ottawa counties.

We did not stop at the camp involved in the criminal case.

“So, this is totally unscheduled,” explained Molly Spaak, the MLA outreach worker touring the sites.

“Sometimes it gets awkward. Farmers will come out and talk to me because they’ll see us poking around (the camps),” said Spaak, as she turned into a driveway and drove past the farmhouse to reach the migrant housing.

“But now I’m sort of used to it. It doesn’t bother me to be accosted anymore by a farmer. Just doin’ my job.”

Spaak said she can visit migrant camps because of a 1971 court case, Folgueras v. Hassle in the Western District of Michigan, the outcome of which allows advocate agencies to check camp conditions without the grower’s permission.

At the camps we checked, Spaak examined what appeared to be an outdoor shower, checked for hot water in another less than ideal bathroom facility, took note of some questionable trailer foundations and checked a trash dumpster that was overflowing on a prior visit.

When she spots problems, she fills out an interagency referral to notify the regional housing inspector for follow-up.

“Broken windows, broken screens, outdated licenses, those are common,” said Spaak.

These days, she checks to see if growers are following COVID-19 guidelines, for instance, posting information in Spanish as required.

MLA also looks for signs that growers are providing workers with personal protection equipment.

Already this season, the agency noted masks hanging on a clothesline, suggesting the workers were trying to re-use them.

Outreach workers also spotted makeshift dividers made of blankets hanging between bunk beds.

Spaak passed out health packets to workers at the camps, hanging them on doors when no one was home.

“The packet has gloves in it, masks, little bottles of hand sanitizer, information,” explained Spaak.

At a Sparta-area camp, Spaak visited a unit that housed six apple workers from various parts of Mexico.

The men said the living arrangement was working out fine.

They also confirmed they had all undergone the required COVID-19 testing, which they said they did not mind.

One of the workers noted they would have been sent back to Mexico if they’d refused.

That’s not an option for the group since the $14.80 per hour farm jobs allow them to send money home to their families in Mexico.

“He’s like, ‘Yes, this is the best way for us to make money,'” said Spaak, translating for one of the men.

“There just isn’t that much work in Mexico, especially with the pandemic,” Spaak continued.

The group of men — the youngest 25 — is in West Michigan on temporary agricultural visas through a program known as H-2A.

Farmers have to apply for the H-2A program and report there are not enough U.S. workers willing and able to harvest the crops.

According to MLA, the government sets H-2A wages at $14.40 an hour.

“If the worker is a (non-H-2A) migrant worker who works alongside H-2A workers, doing the same job, they’re supposed to make the same amount as their H-2A coworkers,” explained Spaak.

“But do we see that happening? Not really. They’re usually paid less. Also, the $14.40 should be an hourly rate, but the H-2A contractors constantly change them from hourly to piece rate, which is a breach of contract.”

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