Jul 7, 2010
Report puts growers in a bad light

When I sat down to read my local newspaper, The Grand Rapids Press, a few weeks ago, I was greeted with this headline: “State report says Michigan migrant farmworkers working in ‘intolerable’ and ‘unconscionable’ conditions.”

The story reported that migrant workers in Michigan were living in worse conditions than 40 years ago. What – worse than 1970? That year, gas cost 36 cents a gallon, the microwave was just released, white people stormed a bus in the South to prevent integration and you had to be 21 or older to vote. Really – migrant workers have been stuck in worse conditions than four decades ago?

I’ve grown up in the fruit and vegetable industry in Michigan my entire life, and reported on it for the past 17 years as owner of Fruit Growers News and Vegetable Growers News. My family farm employed migrant workers. I’ve gone to countless grower meetings, visited hundreds of farms and have seen migrant housing all over the world.

Not once have I heard complaints, rumors or anything approaching the accusations made in the report.
I was in total disbelief, so I went to the Michigan Civil Rights Commission website and downloaded the 102-page report. Here are some of the accusations made in the report.

  • Extreme overcrowding of migrant camps.
  • Not paying workers minimum wage.
  • Many references that migrant workers were being treated like “slaves” and that there was prostitution and drugs at camps.
  • Accusations of sex discrimination against women, sexual harassment, national origin discrimination and racial discrimination.
  • Reports of employers refusing jobs to U.S. citizens or to English-speakers, preferring instead to hire farm workers who do not speak English because they would not complain about low wages or poor working conditions.
  • The report also said there is a failure of government agencies to investigate and report civil rights abuses targeting farm workers.

Basically, everyone from growers all the way to government agencies were doing everything wrong. Was this the industry I have known my entire life? Do fruit and vegetable growers in Michigan do all of the things this report accused them of?

The inflammatory tone of the report and subsequent media coverage put growers in a very bad light and made them look like bigots and slave traders.

The report said, “testimony provided by growers is disappointing at best.” They did acknowledge that the investigation was done during harvest season, so it was hard for growers to participate.

I’m wondering why the investigation didn’t take place for a longer period of time so more grower and industry input could be given? There are plenty of industry organizations that could have given the civil rights commission the input it needed to tell the whole story.

Media coverage of the “investigation” was the typical one-sided and lazy reporting we’ve gotten used to. The local growers I talked to did not want to be interviewed by the media for fear of reprisals by government agencies.

Michigan Farm Bureau did an excellent job providing a strong rebuttal of the report, but by the time the industry had time to respond it was old news, buried deep inside the newspaper and ignored by the TV stations.
This type of fear mongering has no place in a civilized society. If the commission only wanted to make a headline, then I guess it achieved its goal. However, if it wants to make real change it needs to look at the big picture. Specialty crop growers have been dealt the labor hand the federal government has given them.

Immigration reform and a fair temporary ag labor program
are what all sides need.

I’m a little sick of growers always being made out as the bad guy. The industry is made up of decent, hard-working families who want to leave the earth better than it was when they got here.

Until the Michigan Civil Right Commission decides to get civil about its approach, nothing good will come of its attack on the industry.

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