July 16, 2010 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 16Comment

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.”

16 thoughts on “Ugly truth about Maryland’s crab industry; no wonder the locals don’t want the jobs

  1. The American dream can be a nightmare for immigrants; it’s the same here in the UK… and all the time they’re accused of ‘stealing jobs’!
    It’s good that we have reports like Picked Apart to set the record straight.

  2. Health care (transformation) is one of the best issues this current administration has done thus far. With this change individuals will have the opportunity to seek professional and quality health care services. Who would want to return to the days of the horse and buggy, b/w tv sets, manual typewriters, pac man, you get the point? That’s about how old the health care system was in the USA. Each day the news is filled with social tragedies in which lives are taken at the hands of known acquaintences and/or family members. Our society is stricken with the institutions of white collar crime permeating throughout this great nation and greed which tends to strike at the very fabric of our country. If you are looking for affordable health insurance check out http://bit.ly/chE6zp . I hope everyone will soon recognize and use the resources made by this transformation to seek professional medical attention as the need arises rather than turning to illegal and criminal activities to resolve their issues.

  3. It’s like something from another era:

    You load 16 tons, and what do you get?
    Another day older and deeper in debt,
    St Peter, don’t you call me, ’cause I can’t go,
    I owe my soul to the company store.

    Please tell me that they’re at least not paying interest on the store credit for the necessary tools and clothing…

  4. Sadly, it’s this era.

    The report describes the recruitment process for these workers, with some of them paying $600 fees to have their visas processed, etc. Some of the workers take out loans at 15% monthly interest rates and their first paychecks are not sufficient to allow them to payback the loans quickly. They start these jobs already in debt.

  5. I was going to be snarky, but it actually hurt my head trying to think how the “if they only came here legally” crowd would somehow claim this is a reasonable alternative.

  6. So sorry but the Centro de los Derechos del Migrante isn’t working since 2007 (no news since then) and the report was made on 2009. Please don’t lie. fisherton

  7. Dear Fisherton,
    I am confident that the CDM is alive and well. I exchanged an email with the founder this morning. If you look at the report there are quotes from individuals dated 2010 meaning it couldn’t have been published in 2009.

    I’ll admit mistakes but I sure didn’t lie about CDM or the report.

  8. It’s comfortable to think that this sort of thing happens elsewhere – like California – or at another time. But this is my home state. Thanks for reporting on this – I hope it continues to get attention.

  9. Although it is wrong to immigrate illegally, migrant workers still deserve to have human rights, just like anyone else. In addition, if the crab industry had to treat these workers well, they would have less incentive to hire them (due to increased costs) and would thus make the jobs more available to American citizens.

  10. As long as (non-citizen) immigrants – both legal and illegal – continue to lack the same protections that American citizens have, some employers will prefer to hire immigrants. The transfer of jobs from citizens to (non-citizen) immigrants can only be ended by effective enforcement of equal treatment.

  11. Another example of what happens when capitalism operates outside the law. Lawless capitalism does not work, and it brings out the basest and cruelest instincts in men.

    As long as the pigs run the farm, this is what we are going to get.

  12. Jeane,

    That’s a non sequitur along the lines of “although it is illegal to rob banks, I want a fixed-rate mortgage.” These workers did not immigrate illegally. They paid significant money for work visas.

    You’re right that a large part of why the employers hire these workers is that it’s cheaper than hiring American citizens. But this isn’t an illegal immigration issue.

  13. Another example of what happens when capitalism operates outside the law. Lawless capitalism does not work, and it brings out the basest and cruelest instincts in men.

    As long as the pigs run the farm, this is what we are going to get.

    Then, let’s just slaughter all the pig and let other take care of the farm

  14. They deserve better. Shame on the employers.

    Without the workers we will be eating crabs from Vietnam or some other third world country. And you know those countries follow the best safety practices. Not!

    Wake up who takes all the jobs that the locals do not want to do? Immigrants, legal and illegal. They all deserve a safe workplace.

    CDM is still around. What are they doing?

    What is the solution?

  15. I really don’t understand some of you, have you all never worked hard for little money? These people come here, work hard and get paid 8 to 10 times what they make at home?
    Why don’t you get together and stop these companies from hiring them, that will teach them as they turn around and say hey! thanks for nothing! Now because you all don’t like hard work, you get rid of our jobs and now what does my family do?
    I have worked hard and was paid low wages, they are not kept women and some of you should be ashamed by thinking they are too good for taking care of their family. Some of you would let your family starve and whine about how hard life is.
    These women are awesome for what they do (take care of their family) and they are glad to have a job!

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