Migrant workers struggle to survive, some with family states away

WILLARD Clad in T-shirts with superheroes emblazoned on the fronts, a pair of children, no older tha
Cory Frolik
May 24, 2010

WILLARD

Clad in T-shirts with superheroes emblazoned on the fronts, a pair of children, no older than 6, play in the dirt lots beneath the windows of their one-story housing unit near massive fields once full of vegetables.

One child tosses a plastic toy to the other, who fiddles with it for a few moments before tossing it back.

Back and forth it goes. The toy appears as a colorful blur to the boys.

The dust the kids play in is littered with empty beer bottles and food wrappers.

Behind them, stained bed sheets hang from the windows of the small housing unit.

The inside of the home is dark, except for a faint glow emanating from the screen of a small television set, playing a cartoon with the volume muted.

Hanging sheets serve as dividers, creating private sleeping spaces.

Two entire families call the cramped, two-bedroom living quarters home.

In the front, a group of young men are huddled around a grill, which spews black smoke.

The trio hold beer bottles and swap stories and jokes in Spanish.

A man emerges from a nearby unit to remove from a clothesline a sheet and towel, which he crumples into a ball, tucks beneath his arm and carries back inside his home.

As he closes his screen door, a dog barks from somewhere inside the darkness.

Chickens roam, pecking at tiny dots of food scattered on the ground.

The scene could be happening in some remote corner of Mexico, except it's not.

It's Sunday afternoon in rural Willard, and residents of the migrant camp on Baseline Road are taking it easy.

Nickel-and-dimed living quarters

Several migrant farm workers lounge indoors on their beds or sit on hard-backed dinner chairs with the lights off.

Some listen to music. Others watch movies. Others just hang out around card tables, smoking generic cigarettes.

Some are out playing soccer at a field provided by Wiers Farm.

At agricultural camps, lounge space is limited.

The living quarters at farm work camps are notoriously tiny and cramped.

"It's a tough life because they have to live in little rooms and they don't have their own bedrooms," said Elena Glyda, Sandusky County Job Store bilingual customer service representative. "Two whole families live in two-bedroom homes."

And that's just the families who migrate together.

Single men will often sleep five to eight in one room, Glyda said. In many cases, the more people per room, the less each tenant has to pay to stay there.

Benito Lucio, Ohio's monitor advocate and ombudsman, said living conditions have greatly improved for migrant farm workers in Ohio in the last decade or so after employers used state grant money for facility upgrades.

State law requires agricultural camps to meet health and safety requirements.

The walls must be weather resistant, and there must be adequate facilities for clothes to dry.

The Ohio Department of Health and the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services are charged with inspecting the camps.

Although state officials claim great strides have been made to improve agricultural labor camps, Mark Heller said the progress is overstated.

He said while times have changed, living conditions have not.

Heller, managing attorney for the migrant farm worker and immigration program with Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, said his organization regularly files complaints against and sometimes even sues farm operations for failing to keep their camps up to code.

"We see a lot of problems there because a lot of the units are really old," Heller said. "It's all pretty primitive -- especially considering how hard people have to work all day."

Across the state, migrant farm workers are forced to live in camps that lack hot water, fail to properly empty toilet facilities and let trash dumpsters overflow with garbage that attracts disease-spreading pests.

"Flies, mosquitoes, bugs and things like that," Heller said.

According to the 2008 annual report of the Ohio Migrant Agricultural Ombudsman, which Lucio helped prepare, Ohio employers provide less housing for migrant farm workers than is needed, which contributes to worker shortages.

There were 15 fewer camps in Ohio in 2008 than the previous year.

Part of the problem is employers do not have the incentive they once did to improve living facilities.

About half of the licensed camps in the state at some point received Ohio Department of Development grant money to upgrade the camps or expand them.

The program, which provided $250,000 annually, was discontinued in 2003.

The ombudsman report recommends the state reintroduce the grant program to ensure employers are able to attract farm workers in the numbers they need to handle their harvests.

The report states this would help maintain Ohio as one of the top 10 producers of fruits and vegetables in the nation.

The report also recommends the state provide gas vouchers to migrant farm workers to help them with travel costs.

As any migrant farm worker can attest, getting to Ohio to work is no easy task.

The long haul

The ombudsman report estimates many farm workers travel 1,400 to 1,500 miles from their homes in Texas or Florida to get to Ohio farms.

Anecdotes from local workers bear this estimate out.

But Glyda said as many as 75 percent of farm workers in this region originally hail from Oaxaca, Mexico, a hardscrabble area south of Mexico City. Many illegally enter the country to seek work.

Some workers say they spent a few nights in the cold and unforgiving desert to make it onto U.S. soil.

Wiers Farm crew leader Sevy Hernandez was born in Oaxaca and emigrated to the United States with his family in search of better work for better wages.

It wasn't hard to find here.

In Oaxaca today, a worker might make $25 per week for backbreaking agricultural work.

The same kind of work in America pays many times that amount because farm workers, even undocumented ones, are legally guaranteed minimum wage.

Some migrant workers end up making much more than minimum wage, based on their level of output.

"Everybody here can make more than $100 per day -- the good workers can make $150-$180 per day," said Hernandez, who's 39, wears a Jim Beam baseball cap and radiates friendliness. "I make pretty good money here."

The pay may be much higher than the prevailing wages in Mexico, but by American standards, it's nothing exceptional.

According to the American Farm Bureau, only 15 million Americans -- less than 5 percent of the total population -- have jobs that pay less than farm work.

The piggy banks back home

Making money on the farm takes working hard, but not spending the money also takes discipline.

Some costs are unavoidable.

Farm workers must eat, so they buy groceries from local stores and pick up lunch and dinner from food trucks that park near the fields.

They also pay for rent, utilities, cell phone bills and beer.

As the hundreds of Bud Light caps littered in the camps show, many farm workers enjoy their one full day off each week swigging booze like tailgaters, as if trying to drink away the lingering harshness of their lives.

Almost all pay for cell phones to call home and keep in touch with their loved ones, who they left behind to chase the harvest.

Some farm workers like owning nice things and spend their money on new threads, electronic toys and new vehicles.

Some trek into downtown Willard to visit a Hispanic business called La Azteca, which sells Mexican groceries, hats, soccer jerseys, work boots and Spanish DVDs and CDs.

But a great many farm workers keep expenses minimal.

They do this so they can send as much money as possible to their families in Mexico, Texas and Florida.

Although many families migrate together from state to state -- following the harvest from Florida to Georgia to Ohio to Michigan or some variation thereof -- others do not. One parent often follows the harvest while the rest of the family stays behind.

Many of the men working in the fields at Wiers Farm, Buurma Farm and the others have not seen their families in years, yet they still send home the bulk of their paychecks.

Some will send home all but $20, which they use to scrape by.

Glyda said she spoke with a migrant farm worker in Huron County recently who had not seen his family for 12 years.

His exchanges with his children and wife are limited to phone conversations and the occasional letter.

Despite this, he still sends home most of his paycheck.

"He calls his family and he wants to see them, but he's afraid," Glyda said. "He said, 'Once I go, I can't come back."

He fears if he visits them, he will not be allowed back into the United States.