For over a century, the majority of America’s farmlands have been cultivated and harvested by migrant laborers. By definition, migrant workers are usually a product of unsatisfactory work opportunities. Migrant labor was brought to national attention during the Great Depression, as seen in the dialogue of John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath or in the tenacity of Lange’s photographs for the FSA. Around 50% of these laborers were domestic, including families affected by the dustbowl in the Midwest and poor African Americans. Immigrants from other countries picked up the other half of the work; Chinese, Japanese, and Mexican laborers comprised of this workforce throughout history.
Today, domestic migrant work has greatly declined. According to Colorado farm owner John Harold, few American locals are willing to carry out hard manual labor as compared to foreign workers. In fact, the federally backed H-2A program “allows seasonal foreign workers into the country to make up the gap where willing and able American workers are few in number.” Even with such an opportunity to work, foreign immigrants are reluctant to travel cross-country to find work due to today’s relatively tighter immigration laws than before. Workers’ status as immigrants prevents them from legally unionizing. (Strawberry pickers in California were recently fired for walking off-job in the wake of wildfire.) In addition, many state laws leave temporary migrant workers in a sort of legal limbo. Much like a teenager working a summer job “under the table” for a local business, many aspects of migrant workers’ employment such as health benefits, housing, and wages – are left up in the air.
Often, these scenarios go unnoticed. How are foreign workers supposed to know if they’re being legally swindled out of basic employee rights? A recent story originating out of Chang Farm in Whately encompassed this very issue. Over the summer, owner Chang was fined over $300,000 in employee back-wages. For years, Chang Enterprises had underpaid it’s migrant workers, giving them a flat rate of $350-450 in exchange for nearly 90 hours a week. Additionally, two of the houses that Chang provided for workers to live in were closed down and demolished under the action of the Martha Coakley-endorsed Massachusetts Department of Health. Chang was require to provide housing for those left displaced. Both homes contained multiple health and fire hazards and one had over 15 tenants living in it, including children. During an inspection of the Deerfield and Whatley homes, the State Fire Marshall observed:
“a lack of smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, poorly maintained electrical systems, exits secured with padlocks or blocked by vegetation, windowless bedrooms, rotting walls and ceilings, water damage, deteriorating roofs, electrical fixtures hanging on loose wires, exposed pipes, rooms full of junk, and, at one location, an improperly installed wood stove.”
Were these laborers aware of their mistreatment, or were they afraid to say anything about it? In a Gazettenet article, one of the quoted workers refused to give his name out of fear of losing his job. From this story, I come to two conclusions. The first is that migrant laborers care very deeply about their jobs. As a workforce willing to travel great lengths to find work and support itself, what could be worse than doing it all for nothing? The second conclusion is also the biggest question of the story: do migrant workers know their rights? It must be easy for employers to take advantage of their employees when most of them either can’t speak English or aren’t from the United States in the first place.
Throughout history to this day, migrant laborers have been greatly underrepresented. The fact that the government was the first to respond to the Chang Farm problem shows that the public is relatively unaware of migrant issues. Tom Zimnowski – a lifetime Sunderland resident and one of my bosses at the UMass News and Media relations office – has known of Chang Farm for over 40 years, back when the family started growing vegetables on their farm in Whately. Having worked in a grocery store in Sunderland at the time, Tom saw the family expand the sale of their produce from the store he worked in all the way up to UMass Amherst Dining (the food I eat)! Zimnowski commented on the immigrant family’s own tenacious beginnings in relation to the “pathetic” treatment of their workers today:
“They were a hard working family, they were out in the fields (the whole family) getting dirty… As they started to increase their business and do more and more, and came to the final portion of this story where they treat their immigrant workers with such abuse… it’s mind boggling to take and see that going on right beneath our noses…”
For this project, I also interviewed Kathleen McKiernan, a local reporter for Gazettenet, who wrote two articles about the Chang Farm issue, one mentioned above. As he first story of the type, McKiernan wasn’t aware of how poorly the Chang Farm migrant workers really were being treated. She admitted that the two dilapidated houses were “in rough shape”. When I asked her what businesses could do to prevent such mistreatment, McKiernan stated that “unfortunately, some businesses think about the bottom line, making money.” When business practices start to get in the way of worker rights, she argued, “it’s time to raise awareness about the issue.” (She agreed that these problems have to do with immigration laws.)
While the Chang Farm dilemma seemed shocking to many, recent migrant workers have a history mistreatment and neglect with stories that are even worse. Working on farms and other industrial-sized workplaces with large and dangerous machinery, migrant workers have been facing a “systematic problem of workplace dangers”, according to one article. More often than not, laborers aren’t given proper safety instructions. Back in March, Mexican national Carlos Centeno was killed after an explosion of water and acid scalded over 80% of his body. His supervisors “allowed him to lie screaming and in pain” after not following standard procedure and putting him under a safety shower. In 2010, migrant worker Edgardo Toucet was nearly torn in half by an ‘industrial peeler’ while working at a carpet factory. The peeler’s safety feature was disabled. In both cases, workers at each respective job site weren’t given proper safety instruction.
As a journalist, I’ve already demonstrated a few ways to get public attention to the plight of migrant workers. Like hardworking migrant workers, reporters need to get dirty. After interviewing a journalist who picked up the story, I reached out to the community under her advice to get the public involved. Luckily, my community link was right under my nose at work, a lifetime local who knew and was willing to reveal even more than the health officials or the Chang family itself. I believe that the community often holds the answer to a good story (even if it’s migrant labor, where few know much about it). More often than not, those directly involved with such libelous stories won’t give out the full story. Look at the laborer who wouldn’t give his name as a precaution to getting fired: he quoted Chang as “fair” and said that “it’s not a problem” to move out.
Migrant workers today are quite frequently overlooked because they’re from other countries – many don’t speak fluent English. Our nation is becoming more diverse each and every day, resulting in a lack of familiarity between the people we see everyday, all due to a language and culture barrier. As the workforce that has put fruits and vegetables on the tables of Americans around the country, it’s laborers deserve a significant amount of attention – not only for their safety, but also perhaps, for our own national safety as well.
One of the houses on Crestview Drive in South Deerfield -the same street that Mr. Chang lives on- a short drive away from the recently condemned home on Sugarloaf Street.