Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Lawmakers seek to improve conditions for migrant workers

By Jamey Dunn

Lawmakers are looking to improve conditions for the thousands of migrant and seasonal workers who travel to Illinois to work in agriculture and other industries.

One witness testifying before an Illinois Senate agriculture committee this week compared the conditions for migrant workers formerly living in an apartment building in northern Champaign county to those documented in "The Jungle," Upton Sinclair’s 1906 expose on the conditions workers met in Chicago’s meat packing plants.

Julie Pryde, administrator of the Champaign Urbana Public Health District, said her department received a complaint about raw sewage being dumped from the Cherry Orchard housing complex, which often houses migrant workers. “I was absolutely shocked with what I encountered. And all of the amount of services that have come to bear on this one situation, and the hundreds of thousands of dollars it costs [to intervene],” Pryde said. “We were not able to do anything until this summer, when the courts were finally able to give us the authority to go up there and board up the facility and shut it down and keep people out for good.” Pryde recounted holes in walls and ceilings and a lack of running water and electricity.

The owners — who Pryde said were licensed in the past by the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) to use the building as housing for migrant workers — were brought up on charges. It is this sort of scenario that committee members say they hope to address. “In 35 [or] 40 years, things have not changed. This is a condition of indentured servitude,” said Peoria Democratic Sen. David Koehler, who says he saw such conditions first hand when he worked with organizations run by immigrants’ right advocates Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez. “It was deplorable then. It’s deplorable now, and I think we need to do something to fix it.”

Pryde said industries reap the benefits of cheap labor while local governments and charity organizations foot the bill for services needed by the workers. “This is subsidized labor. If you think that cheap labor is cheap, you are absolutely not looking at it correctly. … There are enormous costs for having what I would consider a very low paid group of workers who are not even earning a living wage. … We need to provide them rent subsidies. We need to provide them health care.” She said it is not just farming operations that profit from the situation. “It is all the really cheap labor we’re talking about. We’re talking about agribusiness. We’re talking about people working in restaurants. We’re talking about people working in manufacturing.” According to the Latino Policy Institute, a majority of the migrant workers in the state are legally allowed to work in the United States, and 33 percent are U.S. citizens. They typically bring family members along for the trip — on average four people — and their median household income is $17,000 to almost $20,000. The average length of stay for a migrant worker in Illinois is just over six months. According to the Illinois Migrant Council, approximately 28,000 seasonal and migrant workers traveled to the state last year.  That number is down from about 32,000 in previous years.

Pryde pointed to local efforts to close down Cherry Orchard. “This one situation cost tens of thousands of dollars locally. That’s not even counting what the state had to pay for this situation—to finally get it shut down. And of course all we’ve done is push the situation elsewhere. The situation still exists. We just can’t see it.’ Miguel Keberlein Gutierrez, supervisory attorney of the Illinois Migrant Legal Assistance Project, said migrant workers are lured to Illinois, as well as other states across the nation, by labor recruiters. The recruiters contract with companies to provide low cost workers and also act as sort of a legal buffer because the companies often do not technically employ the workers. Gutierrez said workers typically come to Illinois from Texas, Florida and Mexico. “[The recruiters] begin to make promises about good free housing, about getting their kids into school, about access to food stamps, SNAP benefits. But of course, farm workers are never told how dangerous or poor the housing will be that they’re going to be placed in.” He said once workers come here, they and their families are usually crammed into small and decrepit living spaces. “The labor contractor is used as the middle man to do all the basically the dirty work that no one else wants to do,” Koehler said.

If workers complain, they can lose their jobs and have no way to get home, or they can even face physical retaliation. Gutierrez said the only way a worker can get legal help is to file an injunction to shut downh a housing camp or a work operation. “The likelihood of a farmworker being able to navigate the local court system [with no legal representation] to get an injunction against a labor camp is remote,” he said.

Pryde said cramped and unsanitary living conditions create a public health threat for the community at large. “It does hurt them, and it hurts us when there is tuberculosis involved, when there are other illnesses involved. People are coming here and being hired without even the most basic infectious disease health screening.” She said the dumping of raw sewage, like what was happening at the Cherry Orchard complex, opens up the potential for the public to be exposed to a host of diseases. “You're probably thinking, 'Cholera, typhoid fever, what are the chances of that happening?' Cause we don’t even see those in this country hardly, do we? We certainly have had cases of them in Champaign County this year.”

Witnesses suggested that lawmakers require the IDPH to meet three times a year with advocacy groups and those providing services to migrant workers, make it easier for migrant workers to contact the state for help and to highlight the need for legislation to improve IDPH oversight of both migrant housing and labor contractors. Bob Palmer, policy director for Housing Action Illinois, said lawmakers must step up the consequences for those who skip out on the state’s licensing process. Multiple witnesses said that because since the consequences for not getting licensed are minimal, many involved in recruiting and housing migrant workers do not go through the process and avoid oversight from the state. “In order to not have more growers or labor contractors totally remove themselves from the limited regulatory system that we have now, we need to have … some penalties for not participating,” he said.

The committee plans to hold more hearings on the issue, and Sen. Toi Hutchinson said she hopes they will produce legislation addressing some of dangerous housing and labor conditions faced by many migrant workers in the state. “If this were [happening] in another country, we would be talking about human rights violations — not an agricultural protection act — I’m talking about human rights violations.”

Pryde said she thinks the issue is one that goes largely unnoticed by Illinois residents. “I am truly an accidental advocate,” she said. “Until I had a personal experience with this, I had no idea. And now I simply cannot not talk about it.”

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