In an amazing and comprehensive report entitled “Picked Apart,” the Centro de los Derechos del Migrante and the International Human Rights Law Clinic of American University College of Law reveal the ugly, dark side of the Maryland crab industry. Some employers are skirting the law and exploiting workers hired under the H2-B guestworker program. Many of these workers are women from Mexico who’ve traveled thousands of miles in a bus to remote villages on Maryland’s eastern shore. They’ll work during the Blue crab harvesting season, to pick the meat by hand. The H2-B program allows employers to bring in temporary non-agricultural labor from abroad if they attest that there are not able, willing, qualified and available individuals to do the work. In 2007, 82 percent of the Maryland crab harvest was processed by H2-B workers. Picked Apart is based on more than 40 interviews with these workers conducted over a two-year period. Reading the report, I can see the advantages for these businesses: workers with no power, no voice, and no rights. No wonder the locals don’t want these jobs.
*Imagine having to pick the meat from 142 crabs each day to earn a living comparable to minimum wage.
*Imagine working with super sharp 20-point crab shells and knives, and being rushed so much your hands and arms are chronically scraped and cut.
*Imagine “treating” the cuts on your hands and arms by dipping them in bleach, and being prohibited from wearing bandaids because they might fall into the crabmeat.
*Imagine developing a serious infection on your hands caused by vibrio vulnificus and trying to work through it so as not to miss work.
*Imagine the infection getting unbearable that you need treatment at a hospital. You have to pay all the medical bills yourself because your employer say that workers compensation insurance doesn’t apply because you didn’t report the injury the day it occurred.
*Imagine wanting to use gloves to protect your hands, but your employer makes you pay for them.
*Imagine deciding to pay for gloves to protect your hands but then losing money because you can’t pick as fast wearing them.
*Imagine your employer deducting from your paycheck the costs of knives, gloves, aprons, boots and hairnets, which is illegal under Fair Labor Standards and OSHA regulations.
*Imagine needing an item from the drug store or having a personal medical problem and having to rely on your employer to provide transportation (because the worksite & housing are so remote and there is no public transportation.)
*Imagine living in one apartment with a dozen people who have to share one stove and one bathroom.
*Imagine living with six other women and because the stove didn’t work, your employer (who’s also your landlord) thinks two hotplates are an appropriate substitute.
*Imagine your feelings of powerlessness when your boss is also your landlord.
*Imagine paying rent for your housing but only your boss has a key to lock the door.
Workers hired under the H-2B program are in no position to complain about anything. No wonder they are appealing employees to some in the Maryland crab industry. I understand that these waterman and communities are trying to preserve a way of life and are struggling to compete with imported crabmeat. It is no justification, however, to take advantage of individuals who are vulnerable, economically and socially.
Picked Apart offers 17 specific recommendations for local, state, national and international action. It also correctly points out that there are rules on the books designed to protect individuals from these wrongs, but these laws are not vigorously enforced. The authors offer this recommendation for us:
“Citizens of every state are encourage to write and phone their elected representatives…to urge legislators to protect workers’ rights by working to enact unambiguous laws guaranteeing fair wages and fair treatment for migrants, and ensuring that those laws are effectively enforced.”