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Op/ed: Regulation, Enforcement, Transparency Needed to Protect Migrant Workers

UMD Researcher Finds Healthy Housing, Adequate Food Aren’t Givens

By Devon Payne-Sturges

Migrant workers sorting melons with a machine in a field

Laborers sorting melons on a produce farm in Preston, Md. Migrant farm workers on the Eastern Shore need better protections from abuses, says an environmental health professor.

Photo by Edwin Remsberg / VWPics via AP Images

Compared to the fertile fields of California’s Central Valley or Florida citrus farms, Maryland doesn’t usually spring to mind as a top destination for migrant farm workers on H2A visas—but they’re an essential part of the $8.25 billion yearly farming industry, a University of Maryland researcher writes in a new essay in The Baltimore Sun.

But the rules governing the guest-worker program don’t do enough to protect them from abuses by labor contractors, said environmental health Associate Professor Devon Payne-Sturges, who conducts health studies among this population. Not all human trafficking horror stories involve sexual exploitation.

The farmworkers housed at the local motel told me that their passports were taken from them by the labor contractor (a direct violation of federal law) and that threats are made against their families if the workers complained (another violation). They receive two meager meals, consisting of three tacos, daily, despite the fact that more than $100 is deducted from their paychecks ostensibly to cover the cost of three meals a day per pay period.

The motel rooms have two sets of bunk beds arranged against a wall end to end (violation of federal rules for migrant labor camps), no place to store personal items and a poorly functioning minifridge for four people. There is no kitchen for workers to prepare their own meals. The workers shared video footage of verbal abuse by the motel owner who routinely berates workers for talking outside their rooms. Workers told me they felt like prisoners, that they were hungry and were afraid to speak to authorities.

Read the rest in The Baltimore Sun.



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