Migrant farmworker report updates Civil Rights Commission, public

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Tom Thornburg, Managing Attorney at Farmworker Legal Services of Michigan, addresses the Michigan Civil Rights Commission.

 PHOTO COURTESY OF THE MCHIGAN CIVIL RIGHTS COMMISSION

by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Three years to the month after the Michigan Civil Rights Commission released its seminal report on conditions facing migrant farm workers, a group carrying its recommendations forward has released a progress report.

The report, fittingly called “Director’s Level Migrant and Seasonal Farmworkers (MSFW) Workgroup Progress Report,” was prepared for the Civil Rights Commission and adopted by the commission last Monday.

Alberto Flores, the Michigan Department of Civil Rights Commission liaison to the MSFW Workgroup, presented the report, assisted by Thomas K. Thornburg of Farmworker Legal Services of Michigan (FLS), who won a State Bar of Michigan Champion of Justice Award in part for his work on the original 2010 report (see Grand Rapids Legal News Sept. 28, 2012).

The MSFW Workgroup includes several state agencies: the departments of Human Services (DHS), Civil Rights, Agriculture (especially its Migrant Labor Housing Program), Secretary of State, Education, and Licensing and Regulatory Affairs, along with the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Michigan State Police, and the Workforce Development Agency. Non-state agencies which joined the workgroup include FLS, the Hispanic Center of West Michigan, Michigan Farm Bureau, the Michigan Primary Care Association and Telamon Corporation, Head Start.
Perhaps most important was the involvement of the state’s Interagency Management Services Committee (IMSC), which falls under DHS and is chaired by the DHS Director of Migrant Affairs. Governor Milliken created the IMSC in 1976; at the time he intended for DHS to be “the single agency to assess, develop, and cooperatively administer Michigan’s services to migrants.”

Since then, Governor Snyder has parceled out some of the migrant service oversight to the Department of Education, though the report seems to indicate that that is not working well due to understaffing.

“A Report on the Conditions of Migrant and Seasonal Farmworkers in Michigan,” released in March 2010, was the result of a year of in-depth exploration. Though it was hardly the first report on the subject — a spate of them came out in 1965-1969 with a follow-up in 1979 — the commission was dedicated to this one including the voices of migrant farmworkers themselves, in addition to those of representatives, agency workers, and advocates.

Some venues, such as the Grand Valley State University hearings in August 2009, were fairly formal, while others were much less so, including at churches and “one in the backyard sitting outside of a Head Start,” according to Thornburg. “The farmworkers felt much, much more comfortable at those, and if they didn’t want to talk in public at all, they could also meet one on one with a commissioner or a staff member and stay anonymous.”

For each of the original report’s 15 recommendations, the MSFW Workgroup update lists achievements, challenges, goals, and strategies, though there were notes on some of the recommendation assessments that there was nothing to list in a given category.

The first recommendation reads: “Identify ways to improve migrant labor housing inspections. This includes both ensuring that present inspection levels are maintained and finding ways to inspect housing after occupancy..., ensuring enforcement of maximum occupancy limits for individual units, preventing minors from living in a unit with unrelated adults, or any other changes that... better protect the occupants... The percentage of.. housing that is inspected must be maintained, or even better, increased.”

Thornburg says that probably the most positive outcomes since 2010 came in the housing inspection area. The Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD, or MDA) was down to three inspectors in its Migrant Labor Housing Program, and they had testified that they were feeling stretched way too thin. With concentrated effort, MDARD found the funding to hire four more, so the pre-seasonal inspections have seen improvement.

There is a downside to this as well, because MDARD’s program is only able to inspect licensed housing facilities. Since facilities that house less than five workers are exempt from licensing, and for a number of other reasons, that represents only 25% of the housing units for the estimated 90,000 migrant farmworkers in the state.

Thornburg says that he found MDARD’s perspective on this issue impressive. “The people at the Migrant Labor Housing Program, and all of MDA, under three different directors, took this pretty seriously. They’ve done a lot of work and thinking and actively lobbying to get funding. You really couldn’t ask for much more.”

In fact, Thornburg says, the MDA understands that it is in the state’s self-interest, as well as that of the agricultural employers, to be viewed as “welcoming” by migrant and seasonal farmworkers. “A lot of these issues could be resolved with a little more understanding of the need of the state to be able to invite return workers. If there’s a labor shortage problem and a need for a ready supply, the best way to guarantee that you’ll have a returning labor force is to have the migrant workers who’ve already been here return.”

In addition, the farm owners’ best interests are served by following the migrant farmworker regulations set forth, such as avoiding heat stress and having hand-washing and toilet facilities in the fields. “We haven’t had these huge tragedies that make  the evening news about heat-stress-related deaths so far, but we’ve just been lucky in my view,” he says. “It’s really in the farmers’ interest that there are Port-a-Jons and handwashing stations so that they’re not the next farm that gets closed down due to contaminated spinach or having people keel over due to environmental hazards.”
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has made some strides in cross-training its employees, but Thornburg says there is much room for improvement.

As noted in the report, just having people sitting at the same table has made a huge difference. “One particularly striking outcome the MSFW Workgroup notes at the outset is the beneficial change that was created through the frequent contact, communication, and partnership between stakeholders,” the report states. “The level of trust and understanding that otherwise would not have been possible without the focus created by the Commission’s Recommendations is considerable.”

The intention is for the MSFW Workgroup to dissolve over time and turn the work of implementing the recommendations to the Interagency Management Services Committee.

One recommendation that committee will not be able to continue to address  is Recommendation 9, “Identify specific amendments to Michigan law that could be made to address concerns raised in the report.” The Workgroup actually fulfilled its identification task, noting, for example, that the Migrant Labor Hosing Program should be authorized to levy fines for violations and unauthorized
housing camps, or substituting spot inspections of workplaces versus having all investigation be complaint-based. Since state agency employees cannot take a position on legislative issues, it will
be up to advocates to work for passage of the identified changes.

The progress report can be found at www.michigan.gov/mdcr/0,4613,7-138--235607--,00.html