August 18, 2016
By Leila Borrero-Krouse
“These are hard-working family people, but they live in the shadows.”
I’ve been working with farm workers on Delmarva for 30 years. I first came to Cambridge, Maryland in 1986 when our family relocated after military service. I currently work as the Maryland Immigration Specialist for CATA.
I’m originally from Puerto Rico, so with my Spanish, I initially worked as a translator for the Department of Social Services. I eventually found work in assisting farm workers in migrant communities. I started in the migrant clinic, where people from Dorchester County – and the mid-shore area – would come for help. These were contract workers; most were temporary during the growing season. They needed all kinds of services, from food stamps to housing to help with their legal status. Some of that work I couldn’t do. I didn’t know about the legal and immigration issues, so I had to learn.
I later worked for Delmarva Rural Ministries and then Maryland Legal Aid and then Catholic Charities.
I have worked all over the Eastern Shore in Delaware, Maryland and Virginia. I have worked with people who are here without legal status, people who have Temporary Protected Status and people who are working towards residency and citizenship.
Over the past 30 years, I have noticed a big change for workers in the agriculture sector. There are more immigrant workers overall, and their work is now primarily in the poultry industry. They don’t work temporarily and they don’t migrate in and out of the area with the growing season. They have jobs all year long.
There are still migrant workers. There is a camp in Somerset County. During World War II it housed German prisoners of war who also worked on farms. They converted it to a migrant farmworker camp. The people who are housed there work for DelMonte; they pick and pack tomatoes. That usually starts in June.
It’s a big camp. I have been there when there were up to 1,000 people living there. I have been there when it was so crowded that people slept in the back of pickup trucks. The bathrooms are not in the houses, so if the people have to go to the bathroom in the night, they have to walk outside.
In the morning, contractors pick them up to get to the jobs. The people living in the migrant camps are families. They have a school there and local people go out on Sunday to bring clothes and toys to the children of the migrant workers.
There are other migrant camps on the Eastern Shore.
For the workers who are here with legal status, the ones who work in the poultry plants, like Tyson and Perdue in Salisbury, they keep me going. Sometimes I feel burned out doing the work I do because things don’t change from year to year. The workers don’t have a lot of education and they sometimes are at a disadvantage in having a voice with their supervisors.
I just had a meeting with some poultry workers and there are issues with them not being able to take breaks to use the bathroom. They said that they see workers running down the hall with their pants unzipped, because they have to go so bad but they will get reprimanded if they leave the line. They also have problems with safety when the line is moving too fast to keep up. They said that they don’t get the right safety equipment, like metal gloves for when they are cutting up the chicken, or fresh goggles when they are doing slaughter and can’t see because they are so covered in the chicken blood.
But they don’t want to organize. They don’t want to “rock the boat.” These are hard-working family people, but they live in the shadows. Many of them work three or more jobs. They will work in the poultry factory all week, then go clean office buildings at night. On the weekends, they go to Rehoboth and Ocean City to clean houses. Sometimes they take a shift at a restaurant.
With all of that, I feel very blessed to do the work that I do. I get to work with a United Nations of people. My clients come from all over: Haiti, Cuba, Honduras, Mexico, Pakistan, Zambia, Nigeria, Liberia, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico. I love the diversity. I love to know people from different cultures. They are all here on the Eastern Shore.
More people should know and understand that these workers are loving families. They are hard workers. They have a very good work ethic. But no voice. They don’t have a voice. In the work that I do with CATA, I try to make sure that they know how to speak for themselves and to maintain their legal status so that their families can stay together.
These farm workers are the last people to touch your food before you buy it and open it in your kitchen. The more you know about your food and how it is grown, picked, produced and packaged, the more you can be an informed consumer and make smart buying choices. Choices that can help the working conditions of Maryland’s farm workers.
Leila Borrero Krouse is the Maryland Immigration Specialist for CATA – The Farmworkers Support Committee, a nonprofit organization founded by migrant farm workers in New Jersey in 1979.
CATA is a Fair Farms partner organization.