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WEEKLY FARM: Crew Leaders Said Responsible For Many Migrants’ Woes

December 12, 1992

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Farm labor recruiters have lured migrant workers from an impoverished crescent of south Texas borderland to jobs as far away as Hawaii. Once there, farmworkers advocates say, the workers are given dilapidated housing and wages so low they can’t afford the trip home.

The activists say much of the exploitation has been at the hands of crew leaders, who in recent years have increasingly filled the role of matching seasonal workers with jobs on the farm.

″A lot of the historic abuses of farmworkers have occurred at the crew leader level - bad housing, unsafe transportation, the failure to pay minimum wage, peonage and involuntary servitude,″ said Michael Hancock of the Farmworker Justice Fund Inc., an advocacy group for migrant workers.

An estimated 10,890 farm labor contractors are registered with the Labor Department, which is supposed to make sure crew leaders pay their workers the minimum wage and provide safe housing and transportation.

Farm labor contractors pay no fee to obtain a license and do not have to be bonded. A license is required for crew leaders who hire and recruit.

James Holt, an agricultural economist who specializes in farm labor issues, said the contractors perform a necessary function linking seasonal jobs with seasonal workers.

Contracting is generally a ″subsistence enterprise,″ Holt said. Participants, he said, range from established contractors with large, computerized operations to fly-by-night operators who ″gather a crew off the street after the bars close at night.″

Although there are scoundrels, Holt said, ″the majority of labor contractors are within their means and their skills; they try to be conscientious and law-abiding.″

Farmers turn to farm labor contractors because the crew leader assumes responsibility for paying, housing and transporting the workers. Under a rarely enforced provision of the law, Hancock said, both crew leader and grower may be held liable for violations.

In the Rio Grande Valley, Texas Rural Legal Aid attorneys in Weslaco have filed about two dozen lawsuits this year alone on behalf of workers who claim to have been mistreated by recruiters.

In one case, 27 migrant farmworkers filed suit alleging that once they arrived in Hawaii to harvest pineapples, they were ″terrorized by a crew leader who controlled nearly ever aspect of their lives.″

The suit said the workers were locked in a fenced and guarded housing compound far from the nearest town, that no toilet facilities were provided at their workplace, and that they were given insufficient water breaks and substandard food, including moldy bread instead of the promised tortillas.

The lights were turned off at about 9:30 p.m. and the crew leader locked the gates at 11 p.m., said Texas Rural Legal Aid attorney Michael T. Kirkpatrick.

″It was a concentration camp atmosphere. They were terrified. If they left, they had no place to go and no money to get home. They were stranded and homeless in Hawaii,″ Kirkpatrick said.

Six weeks after arriving, the workers went on strike and the company gave them their return tickets. They flew back to the Rio Grande Valley with empty wallets.

Labor Department figures show a sharp decline in the number of its investigations of farm labor violations over the last four years, although the amount of penalties has increased.

Records indicate the department conducted 5,041 investigations in 1988 and 3,535 in 1991. The number of manhours devoted to those investigations fell from 61,000 to 39,000.

Labor revokes a fraction of all contractor’s licenses every year: 115 in fiscal 1992, 171 the year before. But the amount of civil money penalties assessed has climbed - from $717,000 in 1988 to $1.6 million in 1991. The total recovered has also risen, from $417,000 to $745,000.

Most of that money comes from growers, not farm labor contractors.

″We haven’t seen the Department of Labor able to sufficiently police the farm labor contractor system to prevent these kinds of abuses,″ Hancock said.

But Corlis Sellers, director of the Labor Department division with jurisdiction over farm and child labor, said the agency’s farm labor enforcement is ″very vigorous.″

″We’re focusing on more serious violations, more housing investigations where safety and health are at issue,″ she said. ″We’re focusing a lot on vehicle safety because of the number of farmworker accidents.″

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