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For decades, the crab industry on Maryland’s Eastern Shore has relied on the labor of seasonal migrant workers from Mexico. But this season, crab processing plants are facing a labor shortage due to a lack of seasonal worker visas granted to companies in the region.
The coronavirus pandemic has only made the situation more severe: Mexican crab pickers live and work in cramped quarters, and they fear that the tight spaces could make them more at-risk for contracting the virus.
How can companies protect their migrant workers from infection? And what does the future hold for Maryland’s crabbing industry?
Produced by Kayla Hewitt
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. Since 1986, the crabbing industry on Maryland's Eastern Shore has relied on the labor of seasonal migrant workers to pick crab meat in their processing plants. With blue crab season upon us, crabbing companies on the Eastern Shore are struggling due to a drastic cut in the number of visas available for migrant workers. Meanwhile, the coronavirus pandemic is creating new obstacles and dangers for workers who have been granted visas, and creating new questions for workers and employers alike. Joining me now to discuss this is Jeff Barker. He is a reporter for the Baltimore Sun. Jeff, thank you so much for joining us.
JEFF BARKERThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIJeff, what is the H-2B visa program, and how is it related to the crabbing industry on the Eastern Shore?
BARKERYeah, it's actually a very popular program in the United States. It's a non-agricultural -- there's a separate one for agriculture. This is for crab pickers. This is for landscapers. This is for lots of different people and industries who say that they really need help from Mexico and many other countries, particularly seasonally. So, for the crab industry, this is their season, right. It started basically April 1st, and the summer season is huge. And they say that they can't get enough locals to do the very tedious chore of crab picking, and they need these workers. And so they get what's called H-2B visas for them to come in.
NNAMDIHow has the federal government usually allocated these visas in past years, and how has that process changed?
BARKERYeah, it's a good question, because the program is so overwhelmingly popular, that they've tried different ways to equitably balance out who gets the visas. And so what they've done sometimes is they've just said, first come, first serve. They tried that a few years ago and literally the Department of Labor computer crashed, because they had so many American businesses trying to get their workers. So, what they did more recently, including this year, is they did basically computer-generated, random selection to determine who gets visas.
NNAMDIHow many visas are usually awarded to crab processing plants on the Eastern Shore, and how many were awarded this year?
BARKERYeah, they say they're really hurting on the Eastern Shore. So, in the program -- not just crab picking, but, you know, America all over -- is 33,000 in the first half of the year. So, for the Eastern Shore, they usually get about 500 crab pickers, almost all of them from Mexico, most of them women. This year, they said they have about 150. So, they're down to maybe one-third or less than one-third of what they would normally have.
NNAMDIIs there any chance that more H-2B visas will be released for this crab season?
BARKERIt's possible. So, they actually -- and you can just kind of see how the Trump administration is divided on this. So, originally, in March, they had announced they were going to get more. So, they were going to go above the 33,000, and say we're going to bring in, I think it was another 35,000, so many, many more workers. But then the pandemic came along and there are fears on a number of fronts. But one of the big fears, I think, of the administration is that if you have so many people unemployed in the United States -- and this was their thinking -- you know, that how can we then bring in foreign workers who could be taking American jobs?
BARKERBut when you bring that back to the crab picking companies, they say, well in fact, even in this environment, we try to get locals -- you know, get Americans to do this, and we just can't -- they just don't want to do it.
NNAMDIWhy is that? There's been efforts to train local people to process crabs, but those efforts have never been successful. How come?
BARKERYeah. I mean, partly it's because I think the economy has been really good, up until the coronavirus pandemic. But partly, you know, I mean, there are a number of theories about it, but the crab-picking organizations say they've tried recruitment programs, they've tried getting college kids. They've even gone to prisons and tried to get people who were coming out of prison to do it, or release programs. They say that this work is too tedious, too hard, the hours -- I mean, you can start your job in the middle -- you know, at 4:00 a.m. You don't get a lot of breaks. They say that Americans just don't want to do it when there are other things they can be doing for employment.
NNAMDIJoining us now is Thurka Sangaramoorthy, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Maryland. Thank you for joining us.
THURKA SANGARAMOORTHYThank you so much for having me.
NNAMDIThurka, who are the people who usually migrate to the Eastern Shore to work as crab pickers?
SANGARAMOORTHYSure. The women that I work with on Maryland's Eastern Shore who are working as crab pickers are all from Mexico, as Jeff stated. They're migrant workers who are mainly here, again, through the H-2B guest worker program, which is the Department of Labor's visa program that supplies these temporary, non-agricultural foreign workers to American companies.
SANGARAMOORTHYThe women are primarily from rural regions in eastern and mainly north central Mexico. These are primarily areas that've undergone substantial rural outmigration because of devastation of small-scale agriculture brought about by NAFTA and other kinds of government policies. The women, I find, on the Eastern Shore, are incredibly unique.
SANGARAMOORTHYWhen we talk about Mexican labor migration, we're often talking about agriculture or men who migrate. And when we talk about Mexican women who migrate to the U.S., we're often talking about their migration as being heavily influenced or tied directly to their male relatives, primarily their husbands or their fathers. And when we talk about migration in terms of the jobs that these women are able to secure, they're often feminized, such as domestic work or care work.
SANGARAMOORTHYBut the women who are coming to the Eastern Shore as crab pickers are migrating alone. So, that's incredibly unique. They're also coming here to participate in a highly masculinized guest worker program, where it's mainly men. They're often breadwinners or head of their families back in Mexico. They're often taking care of their children or their aging relatives and often seen as important members of their communities.
SANGARAMOORTHYThey're really struggling, because there aren't jobs in Mexico or the work that they're able to get, like farm work, doesn't pay them enough to really survive. And this is really what shapes their decisions to come here. They range in age, so anywhere from 20s to the 50s, like, in terms of their age. Some come for the very first time and others have been coming here to work for the same crab-processing plants for years, sometimes decades. Many are mothers, and they're often leaving their children behind.
SANGARAMOORTHYAnd they learn about seafood employment through labor recruiters in Mexico or other women who've worked here before. Most of these women often don't want to do this forever. They want to make sure they earn enough to bring back to their families, so they can survive. And they want to work here legally as migrant workers. So, that's what I can tell you a little bit about the women who are here.
NNAMDICan you tell us quickly, when did migrant workers become so involved in the crab-picking industry?
SANGARAMOORTHYSo, this really started in the '80s, and primarily in 1986. And this is really when the H-2B visa program was instituted. And this is when the processing plants were able to secure laborers from overseas. So, primarily, I know that you had asked the question before about why they may not be able to secure local folks from working here. And throughout most of the 20th century, African-American women and girls were really the people that compromised the vast majority of workers in crab processing, up until roughly in the '80s.
NNAMDIJoining us now is Sulma Guzman, the policy director for Centro de los Derechos del Migrantes. Sulma, thank you for joining us.
SULMA GUZMANThank you.
NNAMDITell us, what is Centro de los Derechos del Migrantes, and how long has your organization worked with crab pickers on the Eastern Shore?
GUZMANYes. So, Centro de los Derechos del Migrantes -- or CDM, as we are widely known -- we are a bi-national nonprofit organization with offices here in the United States and in Mexico that advocates for migrant workers. So, we work with a lot of workers from Mexico. They are in the H-2A program, the H-2B. We have also been working with J-1s, which are the summer work travel, camp counselors, au pairs.
GUZMANAnd we have a three-prong approach. We have a combination of policy advocacy, legal services and strategic outreach. So, we have an outreach team that is dedicated to visiting and communicating with these women in their home communities in Mexico, and also working with a migrant defense committee that is comprised of former and current migrant workers that serves to not only, like, develop their own leadership skills, but also help and support other migrant workers that may be considering coming to the United States or are going back and forth, and how to navigate the processes and knowing their rights and the protections involved.
NNAMDIHere is Marie on Chincoteague Island. Marie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARIEOh, okay. Oh, that wasn't very long to wait. Yeah, I'm kind of new to this area. And I guess you are well aware of the Accomack and North Hampton Counties are pretty much shut down because of COVID-19. And I was wondering, will there be a posting on your website of where the crab processing houses are? Because I can pick crab.
NNAMDIThurka, would you care to respond?
SANGARAMOORTHYI'm not sure how recruitment actually works. I don't know the type of recruitment that the processing plants are currently involved in. I know that almost all of the crab processing houses that I worked with employ migrant Mexican women as basically the main sort of -- the people who are doing the crab processing.
NNAMDIJeff Barker, any indication of how Marie might be able to get some help?
BARKERThe crab companies advertise locally. I mean, I know that they're very interested in any help that they can get. And, in fact, one of the criteria for receiving H-2B workers is that they have to be able to say that they have reached out to American workers, and that they were unable to find the help that they needed.
BARKERSo, you know, some of the companies -- I mean, there's one called Lindy's that the caller could probably find. There's one called Clayton, C-L-A-Y-T-O-N. So, I think she could probably get a hold of them.
NNAMDIMarie, I hope you can find those companies, and good luck to you. But this might be one of the problems. Here's Craig in Ashburn, Virginia. Craig, your turn.
CRAIGYeah, I just find it interesting that wages haven't been discussed yet. And, you know, you talk about Americans not wanting to do this because it's a tedious job or in the hours and everything. But what about wages and benefits? Are you paying a living wage, and do you offer health insurance or are you just paying what would be a good wage in Mexico, but not a good wage and no benefits that would make things difficult for American workers here in the states?
NNAMDISulma, care to respond to that?
GUZMANYeah, sure. And wages are very important. I think Craig hits a nail on the head there with all of his points. The workers that we are in constant communication with, and because our first -- we published a report, Picked Apart, 10 years ago, and we looked in-depth at those wages. And, last year, we did a series of outreach trips with various workers. And a pound of meat is -- they probably get paid, like, 3 to $5 per pound of crab meat.
GUZMANAnd as for health insurance, there's no health insurance options. And many of these women have health issues that they can't take care of while they're working up here in the United States.
NNAMDIThurka, where do these women usually live while working on the Eastern Shore?
SANGARAMOORTHYSure. And I can also just quickly just mention that, as Sulma had indicated, these are not hourly pay. The women are actually paid in terms of piecemeal rates, right, and in terms of by the poundage. There are also daily quotas that they need to meet in order to be able to actually keep working. They can be sent back if they don't meet those quotas.
SANGARAMOORTHYAnd she's absolutely right, there is no insurance. And I can talk a little bit more about health concerns, if you'd like me to. But, right now, in terms of your question about living situations, they're actually living in residential houses, which are kind of set up like dorms, almost, in a sense that there are a large number of women who are actually living together. And this can really vary.
SANGARAMOORTHYSo, some houses are smaller than others, and they can accommodate maybe up to four or five women, sometimes six. Other ones are a little bit larger, and they can accommodate anywhere from 12 to 15. I'm using the word accommodate very loosely. The homes, which really sort of look like typical modest, residential homes on the Eastern Shore, at least on the outside, like all of the housing for migrant women, I would consider to be substandard.
SANGARAMOORTHYThe women actually live in really cramped quarters, often in spaces that are deteriorating or very aging. Many houses are really basically two or three bedrooms with a living room, a dining room, maybe a full bath and sometimes a half bathroom. So, these are really cramped quarters for the number of women that are living there. The furniture's often rudimentary and very old. Linens are sometimes provided but they're adequately not sanitized.
SANGARAMOORTHYOften many of the women constantly complained of bedbugs. That was one of the major things that they had constantly, you know, complained about. They're living with other women, which is also a really high source of stress for them. They often don't know each other. They're coming and leaving the Eastern Shore at very different times. They're working extraordinarily long hours, so there's very little socialization or interaction. And I think just living on the Eastern Shore, because of how isolated it is and where they are, it can really exacerbate stress and suffering and anxiety, and leaving them feeling very lonely and socially isolated, as well.
NNAMDISulma, what changes is your organization calling for with regard to housing for these migrant workers during the pandemic?
GUZMANAs soon as COVID broke out, our immediate concern went to the health and safety of migrant workers, of the women, the men that were either -- that were already here in the United States, that are on their way to the United States or maybe, like, coming in at some point this year.
GUZMANBecause of the housing conditions, which Thurka has mentioned, right, there's overcrowded housing. How can social distancing be implemented in those conditions? The transportation, right. The woman will usually take a bus from their home community to the consulate's office, usually Monterey, Mexico. They'll be there for a couple of days, and then they take another bus, which could be like a roughly three-days trip to Maryland.
GUZMANAnd the workers have described this bus ride as very cramped. It's, like, as soon as they leave their home, they don't have privacy anymore. There's no more social distancing of any sort. There are also women that have to take -- pack their own food, pack their own essentials, because they don't know what the trip ahead is going to look like.
GUZMANAnd so before COVID, the situation was -- it's a stressful trip, but with COVID now, that has heightened the concerns. We heard from one woman that all she was told was to just get a mask and get some gloves, but no other details. There was no other information conveyed to her as to what, if any, her employer was going to do about her health and safety once she arrived in Maryland.
GUZMANSo, those are two areas that we are closely monitoring, and we're in constant communication with the women. And also, I mean, what would happen if they were to fall ill here in Maryland, right? Is there testing -- would there be testing? Would their employers have access to medical treatment and be able to provide them with such medical treatment? And also what kind of work environment are they going to be in during these times?
NNAMDI(overlapping) Glad you brought up work environment because, Jeff, how are crab processing plants implementing social distancing measures for their workers?
BARKERYeah, it's really a challenge, Kojo, because as has been mentioned, they not only live in cramped quarters, but we went out there last summer, I and a Baltimore Sun colleague. And so we saw them standing, I mean, it's not quite shoulder to shoulder, but they're very close together around stainless steel tables while they pick the crabs, using this little knife. And so what they've tried to do is they've tried to do half shifts. So, it probably creates, you now, an additional maybe three or four feet between them.
BARKERBut, you know, it still is really a challenge, I think, in -- it's not as cramped quarters, but it still is pretty cramped. And I know that even some of the operators of the plants themselves say that they are holding their breath, hoping that these women, you know, do not get coronavirus.
NNAMDIHere's Amber, in Salisbury. Amber, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
AMBERHi. Thank you for having me. I am the co-PI for the new college assistance migrant program through Salisbury University. And I just wanted to comment that the migrant and seasonal workers are really valuable and important part of the Eastern Shore community. And we would love to see them enroll in college and settle here. So, I just wanted to promote the CAMP grant, which is the College Assistant Migrant Program that helps pay for and support first-year college students.
AMBERYou need to be eligible for the Migrant Education program or the National Farm Worker Jobs program. But we definitely want to help break this cycle of poverty. Thank you.
NNAMDIThank you very much for sharing that information with us. Care to briefly comment on that, Sulma?
GUZMANThank you, Amber. We will get the details, and we will share that with the workers.
NNAMDIHow about you, Thurka? Care to comment?
SANGARAMOORTHYI think it's a fantastic program. I hadn't heard of it before, so I think it's really, really important that there are people on the Eastern Shore and institutions on the Eastern Shore that are really willing to reach out and help and provide opportunities for long-term sustainability.
NNAMDIHere's Christine, in central Maryland. Christine, your turn.
CHRISTINEThank you, Kojo. Thank you for taking my call. This has been a really interesting show, and while I'm not on the Eastern Shore and we are not in the crabbing industry, we are in central Maryland and I operate a farm in the equine industry. And I just kind of wanted to echo the caller who mentioned about American employees.
CHRISTINEWe currently don't have any migrant employees. However, we're really saddled with constantly trying to find and keep American workers who are willing to do outdoor manual labor, especially labor around livestock. So, even though we start all of our employees at $15 an hour and we do offer benefits, we're still finding that we just cannot find or keep help.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Christine, and good luck to you. Here is Lawrence, in Delaware. Lawrence, your turn.
LAWRENCEHi. I was listening, because I'm interested myself in getting work. Like so many other people, I'm out of work. But it almost sounds as if the wage and the conditions that I'd be subject to are the sweatshops of yesteryear.
NNAMDI(overlapping) Right. Don't have a lot of time but let me ask Sulma Guzman to expand on that. Sulma.
GUZMANOn the conditions? Yeah...
GUZMAN...I mean, they're hard. They're hard working conditions. And I've seen the women's hands, right, and it's arduous labor.
NNAMDILawrence, you might want to look into that, but you'll have to see, because we're just about out of time. Thurka Sangaramoorthy, Jeff Barker and Sulman Guzman, thank you all for joining us. This segment on the state of Maryland's crab industry was produced by Kayla Hewitt. And our conversation about air quality in the region was produced by Richard Cunningham.
NNAMDIA reminder, we're holding a virtual Kojo in Your Community event tonight with career coaches and experts on the local economy focused on navigating the post-pandemic job market. And we'll be taking questions from our live, virtual audience. The event starts at 7:30 p.m. and it's free, but you do have to register by 3:00 p.m. today to get the link. You can find all those details at kojoshow.org. Hope to see you there.
NNAMDIComing up tomorrow, we'll check in on the murder hornets making the headlines. Plus, war correspondent Joe Galloway joins us to talk about his latest book "They Were Soldiers." That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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