Migrant Importance

Migrant workers are a staple of Michigan's economy. Workers who pick crops by hand account for more than two-billion dollars each year in Michigan. Last year, the Michigan Civil Rights Commission held public forums across the state to focus on the rights of migrant and seasonal farm workers. In a report released in March, they found instances of poor living conditions for migrant workers, along with communication issues. Fox 32's Jodi Hathaway and photojournalist Stephanie Adkins wanted to know more about these issues and visited a Northern Michigan farm to find out what they're doing right. “When you stick your fingers with the nails, that'll hurt for two, three days,” Jessie Granados said. He knows a thing or two about hard work in the fields. “I just like to work out in the open, regardless of the weather. I just love farming, and that's all I do,” Granados said. Granados began as a migrant worker from Mexico and came to Dutchman Tree Farms in Missaukee County 15 years ago. “The previous owner of Dutchman, he come into North Carolina, buying trees, so he saw me one day and invited me to come work for him, so here I am today,” he said. He's now an American citizen, homeowner and work supervisor, and since most of the migrant workers only speak Spanish, he's also an interpreter. “When I was unable to speak the language, I was signs, all kinds of signs because nobody can understand you,” Granados said. A language barrier is one of the complaints of some migrant workers who contributed to a report from the Michigan Civil Rights Commission this year. As an employer, Chris Maciborski also knows the challenge of working with another language. “A lot of guys can speak better English now than we can Spanish, but we do our best to communicate regularly,” Maciborski said. That communication is key. Without it, some issues between employer and employee can get misunderstood. One of those issues: maintaining migrant housing. In the report, images taken from unidentified Michigan farms show housing in disrepair or unsanitary conditions. The housing is often provided for free or for the cost of utilities. But Craig Anderson from the Farm Bureau says maintenance is a two-way street. “Most people don't want to report on themselves. So, we have a problem. It isn't caught right away, and that can turn into a more significant challenge,” Anderson said. Dutchman Tree Farms has one of the largest housing operations in the area. This house is one example. Maciborski says all of their housing gets inspected regularly to make sure they adhere to state and federal regulations. “If it's not up to code, they tell us what to fix, and we fix it,” Maciborski said. Anderson tries to stay connected with farmers through meetings. In turn, farmers, like King Orchards, make sure they are filling out the proper paperwork. “We took this class today to be more informed on how to do it, what we're looking for,” Rose King, King Orchards, said. Anderson says the negative findings of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission apply only to a small percentage of farmers in Michigan. He says most farmers, like Dutchman Tree Farms, want to do the right thing. “There's always going to be bad apples in the group that make it hard for everyone to do their job, so when they're not doing things to keep up the standard, and the help feels taken advantage of, that makes everyone in the industry look bad,” Maciborski said. Maciborski says they work hard to maintain good working relationships with all their employees. “If they're not happy, they're not going to come back,” he said. “And we need that workforce, because they are trained, they know what to do, they know where our fields are, they know what we expect.” And that's what's kept Granados here in Northern Michigan year after year. “I've been a lot of places. I'd rather be here than anywhere else,” Granados said. Other complaints migrant workers had in the report included wage theft, employers charging for water and racism. The Michigan Civil Rights Commission is promising to bring the concerns of migrant workers to lawmakers.