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Bills put spotlight on migrant farm labor

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Posted on April 25, 2013 |
By Xian Chiang-Waren



AlysonEastman.jpg
ALYSON EASTMAN OF Orwell testifies in support of the federal immigration reform bill in Washington, D.C., on Monday. Eastman’s company, Book-Ends Associates, works with migrant laborers who come to the U.S. on an H-2A visa for seasonal agricultural work.

ADDISON COUNTY — Immigration reform has taken center stage nationally in recent weeks, at the same time that Vermont legislators have moved forward on a bill that would grant driving permits to the state’s 1,500-to-2,000 undocumented migrant workers.

In Addison County, the debate on immigration continues to hit close to home for many residents who recognize the preservation of the county’s dairy farming heritage is now closely bound to the migrant labor force, while others see flaws in the bill currently under consideration.

“I am well aware of the migrant population within Vermont, and Addison County in particular, and of how much the dairy farms have relied on migrant workers,” said Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, who sits on the House Transportation Committee. “There are a variety of circumstances in which (migrant workers) arrive, but once they’re here they have no rights at all.”

This legislative session, legislators have crafted a bill that would allow undocumented workers in the state to apply for drivers’ licenses. The bill essentially would create a way for individuals who cannot produce a Social Security number (or other specific forms of identification like a U.S. passport or green card) to apply for a Vermont driver’s license. Applicants would still have to prove their identity through photo ID, and prove Vermont residency. Applicants also would have to pass eye exams, written tests (which are already administered in many languages), as well as a road test (likely run by an English speaker) in an inspected and insured vehicle.

At this stage, legislation appears to have significant legislative support. The Senate version of the bill, S.38, was approved by a 27-2 vote earlier this month. The bill then went to the House for a final stage of taking testimony, drafting and voting. Gov. Peter Shumlin has said that he will sign S.38 into law if it reaches his desk.

“It came to the House with such overwhelming support,” said Lanpher. “If there’s time before the end of the session — and of course, no guarantees — I do believe that we want to see it through to the finish.”

Opponents have argued, among other things, that driving is a privilege that should not be granted to undocumented workers who entered the country illegally; that South American drug cartels could take advantage of the program and increase crime in the state (a theory that has been roundly debunked by lawmakers); and that granting migrant workers drivers’ licenses would result in farmers losing some laborers because they could leave farms to seek higher paying jobs elsewhere.

Last Thursday, the House heard testimony from Addison and Franklin county migrant workers, farmers and clergy in support of the bill. In an interview immediately following the hearings, Lanpher characterized the testimonies as “very powerful.”

“Within our whole state we have communities in the corners and in the shadows,” she said. She added that Vermont’s rural landscape made workers especially isolated, with many going months or even years without leaving, unable to visit friends or attend to their daily needs like buying groceries or visiting friends and family working at nearby farms.

But few seem to dispute that migrant workers are central to the survival of the struggling dairy industry.

“This is the plight of the people who feed us,” Lanpher said.

Natalia Fajardo, an organizer with Migrant Justice, the Burlington-based community action group founded after the 2010 death of a migrant worker on a farm in Franklin County, said on Friday that farm workers and their supporters felt they were “poised for a victory” with this round of legislation.

Fajardo, a native of Colombia, said she was studying at UVM when she first heard of the state’s “hidden” population of Latino migrant workers. She said the conversation on the issue had evolved significantly since she came on board with Migrant Justice as an interpreter, organizer and advocate in 2011.

“I think most people know about this issue,” Fajardo said. “And the good news is that Vermont in general is a very embracive place.”

Fajardo said the working conditions that migrant workers experience varies by farm. She said the most frequent issue that comes up are over wage disputes. Living conditions and working relationships also varied greatly. At some farms, migrant workers live in fairly comfortable conditions. Fajardo described one farm in Franklin County where the transportation issue is at least partially addressed, as the farmer hires a driver to take workers to run errands.

At the other end of the spectrum are disturbing stories of workers living four or five to small, unheated trailers, working long shifts that they are occasionally uncompensated for.

“Essentially slave labor conditions,” Fajardo said. (The Independent chose not to identify specific farms by name, as we were unable to verify the claims against them before press time.)

But Fajardo stressed that the legislation would ease the burden on time-and-cash-strapped Vermont farmers just as much as it would free up migrant workers to take care of their own needs.

“This is not a matter of the ‘good farmer’ versus the ‘bad farmer,’” Fajardo said. “There are many farms with good, good farmers. Even then you cannot expect to have all the needs addressed by that good farmer. Farm work is really hard. Anybody will tell you that. Yes, there are farmers that actively want to keep this labor force confined, but even for farmers that are not thinking that way it is unreasonable to ask them to be a gopher for the employee. The bill is needed not because a farmer’s bad. It’s because it’s unreasonable to ask another human being that’s an adult to be taking care of all your needs.”

FIRST-PERSON PERSPECTIVE

Just before noon last Friday on a farm in the heart of Addison County, Jorge Miguel (who asked that we use a pseudonym), a 21-year-old migrant worker from southern Mexico had just gotten off his second night shift. On Thursday, he had traveled with more than 30 of his peers to the Statehouse in Montpelier to help present the “powerful” first-person testimonies to House representatives that Lanpher described. At the Statehouse he had introduced “Hide,” a documentary on the Vermont migrant worker experience produced by two Middlebury College students that has netted screenings and attention around the state. Jorge Miguel also supported his fellow farm workers as well as Vermont farmers and clergy who testified in support of the bill.

Within hours of the hearing, the Mexican citizen was back at work. He worked an eight-hour shift into the night, rested a few hours, then went back for another shift.

“I’m a little tired,” he apologized, as he sat down with the Independent the following morning.

Jorge Miguel came to Vermont to work on an Addison County dairy farm when he was 16. For the first three years, he said he was in total isolation on the farm. “All the time it was just working. The afternoon, the evening, all the time … I didn’t have much opportunity to leave. Now I can leave a little bit more because we know more people.”

He has remained with the same farm for five years. Save for a few disagreements with his employer over wages, which he said they were able to work out, he said that his experience working in the Green Mountain State has been generally good — especially compared to what some of his friends have endured. His activism with Migrant Justice has connected him with migrant workers around the state, as well as supportive citizens and farmers. It has also given him a context for his personal experience.

“As far as housing, I have to recognize that my house is in much better shape than some other people that we visited,” he said, speaking through an interpreter. “Part of our work is bringing consciousness to the public, but also joining the migrant community around the cause (for proper housing and working conditions).”

He and his peers hope that increased mobility will break what he called a “cycle of dependency” on the employers. At the moment, many workers are reliant on farmers to take extra time out of their day to help run errands. In other, more extreme cases, farmers simply demand that their work force be constantly on hand to attend to matters around the farm. In those cases the responsibility is on the farmer to provide basic necessities, but that means that workers rarely, if ever, get the option of choosing their own meals or visiting friends and families.

While Jorge Miguel said that some farmers worry that increased mobility would cause migrant workers to seek better jobs, he believes that in many cases that comes down to employer-employee relationships.

“As far as leaving, it has to do with relationships and the conditions of the work itself,” he said. “If an employer pays a good wage and they’re offering good conditions, the worker wouldn’t have to leave.”

He said his employer has expressed disapproval of the driver’s license measure because he believes the migrant workers will get into accidents. But he finds that an unfair assumption.

“I, personally, am a responsible person,” he said. “That responsibility lies with each (individual) person, and I don’t think that we can make assumptions about a whole community.”

 

This article has been amended to reflect the following corrections and clarifications: 1) The moving bill discussed in the story originated in the Vermont Senate, not the House; 2) the written tests for driving licenses would be administered in many languages, while the road test would be administered by English speakers; 3) Natalia Fajardo prefers to be identified as an “interpreter,” not a “translator”; and 4) the anectdote Franklin County farm where the farmer hired a driver should have specified the driver would take workers only on errands, not anywhere they want to go. In addition, due to an editing error, the article incorrectly stated that Fajardo did not give examples of specific farms that she characterized as putting workers in “essentially slave labor conditions.” She did give examples, which the Independent could not verify before press time.

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