I worked in your orchards of peaches and prunes
I slept on the ground in the light of the moon
On the edge of the city you’ll see us and then
We come with the dust and we go with the wind
— Woody Guthrie, “Pastures of Plenty”
The American Dream can be defined by comfort. The point is to settle into a community, get an impressive job and an equally impressive partner, buy a house with a manicured lawn and a nice back deck, and produce some children who will strive for all these same things. While many spend their lives chasing this familiar image of stability, many others find their livelihood chasing the instability of changing seasons and the varying harvests of America that go along with them.
In Spanish they’re called trabajadores golondrinas because, like migratory sparrows, they find new homes in the alternating locations of their work. They arrive to harvest a crop; when the harvest is over they migrate to the next opportunity.
But in America, we call them “migrant laborers.” We define each of them as individuals who are “required to be absent from a permanent place of residence for the purpose of seeking employment in agricultural work.”
In reality they are travelers, impossibly hard workers, and loving mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters making their way through the harvest streams of this country in order to earn their livelihood.
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According to the National Center for Farmworker Health, most migrant laborers are minorities, with 83% being Hispanic and having roots in Mexico or Central or South America. The remaining population is split among Jamaicans, Haitians, African Americans, and other racial ethnic groups. Many travel as married couples, bringing their children and often even grandparents and extended family members with them along their chosen harvest path.
Due to the rural locations of their work, migrant laborers often face poverty, low wages, poor health, and dangerous working conditions, causing farm work to be ranked as the second most dangerous occupation in the United States, right behind mining. They’re exposed to pesticides and chemicals used in the fields, aggressive labor, and long hours, all for wages so low most Americans wouldn’t consider it an option.
“Working conditions vary from place to place due to environmental and climatic conditions,” I was told Maine State Monitor Advocate for seasonal farmworkers Jorge Acero. For the extent of the harvest, many migrant workers live in labor camps in the fields. Sometimes up to 10 people will sleep in a simple bunkhouse, usually without electricity or running water. A communal kitchen is made available for cooking and dining together. According to Acero, employers are always required to provide clean sanitation facilities, with enough running water for hand-washing and separate water for drinking. There also must be separate outhouses for men and women.
“One good thing is that there are multiple agencies, both governmental and NGO nonprofit-run programs, to assist migrant workers along the way,” said Acero. He personally “keeps an eye out” on his field visits to make sure requirements for healthy living conditions are being met, and will work directly with employers if he sees any problems.
“There are [many programs] out there doing what we can to assure migrant workers have a safe, healthy, and productive work experience while in their states,” said Acero.
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But even with the help of advocates like Acero, many workers slip through the cracks. A 300-page lawsuit was filed this year in Maine, claiming that more than 250 violations of the federal Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act had been made during the 2008 wild blueberry harvest. The alleged violations include housing workers in insect-infested quarters, or in rooms so cramped that workers were forced to sleep on the floor each night after an exhausting 12-hour day in the fields.
A similar suit was filed this year in Michigan, when 32 migrant farm workers and seven of their children claimed that a seed company violated their rights in 2012 when they were hired to detassel corn, a labor-intensive process done when the corn is still in the ground. The workers claim they weren’t given potable water, hand-washing facilities, or toilets in the field.
The blueberry “barrens” where he works — millions of acres of wild blueberry bushes — are located right across the street from this compound. It’s made up of small cement houses painted a powder blue, a communal eating area where two Mexican food trucks are parked, and a soccer field where three teams — the Americans, Mexicans, and Hondurans — will face off in a tournament sponsored by their employer, Wyman’s of Maine, at the end of the season.
Violations such as these are nothing new in America, yet they are rarely publicized. Many workers are afraid to speak up for themselves because they might be penalized with fewer hours or a lower wage. In many cases, there’s a significant language barrier between employer and worker, causing migrant laborers to feel even more helpless.
The United Farm Workers of America (UFW) is the nation’s first labor union for farm workers, known for its slogan “Si Se Puede!” It was founded by Cesar Chavez in 1962 and is currently active in 10 states. The UFW is known for giving migrant farm workers a voice.
Rafael Vega has been a citrus worker for at least 20 years. He told the UFW: “This contractor paid us in cash, and one day me and my coworker asked her to pay us with a check so that we could report to social security, and she became upset and fired us all, the entire crew.”
Another citrus worker, Javier Cantor, voiced similar fears: “I know my legal rights are being violated by this contractor, but I do not complain because my other coworkers do not complain and I am afraid to speak up for myself.”
Employers often operate under the mindset that there are plenty of laborers willing to work and work quietly. Greg1 is a former blueberry raker in Washington County, Maine — the blueberry capital of the world and often the final stop for those following the East Coast Migrant Stream. He raked with his family as a child and remembers making $2.25 per 23-pound box. In 2011, he returned to rake as a 28-year-old man and was given that exact same wage. His crew — comprising both local and migrant workers — went on strike for a day, demanding a higher amount. Greg remembers that his employer actually agreed to raise the wage to $3. But not before threatening the crew members, claiming that “if they didn’t like the pay, there were plenty of other workers waiting to take their job.”
When payday came around, the crew received only $2.75 per box.
Many followers of the East Coast Stream begin in Florida picking citrus. They then make their way up the coast picking high-bush blueberries in North Carolina and New Jersey, where they use their fingers to pluck large berries out of trees and into a basket secured at the waist. Later comes the wild, low-bush blueberries of Maine, where a hand rake is pushed and dragged over the top of the bush. Sticks, leaves, and rocks are winnowed out before dumping these smaller berries into a box. From there, workers may choose to continue north in Maine to pick broccoli or potatoes in Aroostook County or move on to Pennsylvania for the apple harvest.
Enrique is a 20-year-old from Georgia who’s been following this exact path with his father and made it all the way to the Maine’s blueberry season in August. He said that living conditions are different for every harvest. In North Carolina, he was able to stay in a hotel room, paid for by his employer. “If you put enough people in a room, they’ll pay for it,” he told me.
After North Carolina, Enrique’s New Jersey employer provided a “big house” for the crew to stay in together.
Here in Maine, he’s living at a labor camp in the town of Deblois. The blueberry “barrens” where he works — millions of acres of wild blueberry bushes — are located right across the street from this compound. It’s made up of small cement houses painted a powder blue, a communal eating area where two Mexican food trucks are parked, and a soccer field where three teams — the Americans, Mexicans, and Hondurans — will face off in a tournament sponsored by their employer, Wyman’s of Maine, at the end of the season. Enrique said that even though it’s a lot more rural than past places, and he hasn’t had the opportunity to leave the compound and see the community, there are a lot of reasons why he likes living at the camp.
“I love it here. It’s more natural,” Enrique said. “People are more chill, relaxed, calm…. Everyone talks to each other. You have friends all the time.”
Enrique was sitting next to one of these friends, Luis. The two met at the camp in Maine even though they both came from the same previous destination, the high-bush blueberry harvest in New Jersey. Luis made it to Maine with his mother, grandmother, aunt, and uncle. After the blueberry harvest’s end in August, he’ll return home to West Virginia for his senior year of high school.
“This is my second time in Maine,” Luis said. “I might not return. I’ll try and find a more stable job after graduation.”
Unlike Luis, Enrique will travel on with his father. Together they’ll head to Pennsylvania to pick apples in the fall. “Then we’ll come back [to Maine] to make — ” he used his hand to draw a circle in the air and poked imaginary sticks into it — wreaths.
Wreath-making is another of Maine’s labor industries that’s dominated by migrant populations. Workers assemble sprigs of pine around wire circles to be shipped all over the world in time for Christmas Eve. The work takes place inside a large factory, also located in Washington County. It offers a familiar place for workers to come back to and consistent work throughout the winter.
Here in Deblois, Enrique knows where he’s heading next, but his mind is still focused on making the most of the blueberry season. “It’s mental. You have to keep thinking ‘I’m a machine. I’m a machine.’ If you don’t, your mind gets depressed and you don’t make that money.”
He raked 150 boxes on his best day of the Maine harvest — nearly $340 but not a typical workday. Most rakers average about 80 boxes. Enrique says that even though working in the harvests is “good money” — and it’s how his father earns a living all year long — he wants to go to school to be a sound engineer.
“Then I can come back to places like these and offer them opportunities. You meet all different types of people here. I would like to hear and share their stories.”