FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: September 24, 2020
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BALTIMORE, MD– Today, Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, Inc. (CDM), the American University Washington College of Law Immigrant Justice Clinic, and Georgetown University Law Center’s Federal Legislation Clinic have released, Breaking the Shell: How Maryland’s Migrant Crab Pickers Continue to Be “Picked Apart,” a report examining current conditions faced by migrant worker women as crab pickers on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The vast majority of these workers are Mexican women on temporary work visas tied to their employer who come to the United States seasonally from April to November every year. A followup to 2010’s Picked Apart: The Hidden Struggles of Migrant Worker Women in the Maryland Crab Industry, this new report reveals how H-2B guesworkers remain in a daily fight for their rights and dignity in an atmosphere still rife with gender-based abuse — even when they have been deemed ‘essential’ workers under the COVID-19 pandemic.
The majority of workers at Maryland’s crab processing plants arrive in the United States on H-2B guestworker visas. Because their immigration status is contingent on their employment, for guestworkers, raising complaints means risking their jobs, their immigration status and the opportunity to return the following work season. A decade ago, CDM and the American University Washington College of Law Immigrant Justice Clinic released Picked Apart, unveiling systemic abuses in the Maryland Eastern Shore crab industry — with workers subject to discrimination, retaliation, recruitment and wage and hour abuses. In the wake of the report, migrant worker women won important concessions and regulatory changes, such as the prohibition of recruitment fees and requiring employers to pay for the cost of tools and equipment.
“We’ve witnessed the bravery of crab workers in speaking out, organizing and fighting for their basic rights in spite of fear of employer retaliation,” said Rachel Micah-Jones, Founder and Executive Director at CDM. “Since Picked Apart, the rights of H-2B workers in the Maryland Eastern Shore have been under constant attack by industry lobbyists and the politicians that put corporate interests over worker safety. Now the pandemic has brought new urgency to reforms and emergency measures to save lives and protect the health of workers.”
“When we authored and published Picked Apart ten years ago, we understood the complexity of the challenges relating to migrant workers’ rights at the Eastern Shore, says Jayesh Rathod, Associate Dean for Experiential Education and Director of the Immigrant Justice Clinic at American University Washington College of Law. “Regrettably, abuses within the H-2B program have been documented nationwide, and industry representatives often resist strengthened protections for workers. Although there have been some improvements in the experience of workers, we must continue to ensure that the rights of migrant workers in the Maryland crab industry are fully respected.”
The report remarks that while the pandemic did not create the labor abuses in the H-2B Maryland seafood industry, it has heightened them. Crab pickers have been at work throughout the pandemic where they face precarious conditions such as overcrowded housing, cramped conditions and a lack of accessible medical care. Breaking the Shell suggests that crab houses have been linked to airborne diseases and asthma-aggravating conditions. It also notes that government agencies’ failure to enact emergency safety regulations during the pandemic poses serious concerns about the health and safety of crab pickers. In July, Delmarva Now and the Baltimore Sun reported that approximately 50 workers fell ill with COVID-19 in Maryland crab houses in the Eastern Shore.
“The women who work as crab pickers are caught in an impossible situation,” said Dr. Thurka Sangaramoorthy, a cultural and medical anthropologist and an infectious disease expert at the University of Maryland, College Park. “They need to be able to produce and meet the strict production quotas to be able to stay and work. When they do get sick, they often feel like they need to continue to work to meet those demands. Plus, their working and living conditions put them at serious risk for COVID-19 and they face critical barriers in accessing care and treatment.”
“COVID-19 has ripped the thin veil that had previously and conveniently shielded people in the United States from the working conditions so many of these essential crab pickers endure each day,” says Amy Liebman, Eastern Shore resident and Director of the Environmental and Occupational Health Programs for the Migrant Clinicians Network. “These women, who are at the heart of Maryland’s treasured crab industry, deserve safe working conditions and access to health care. It is time to act so that these workers are protected.”
Breaking the Shell demonstrates how Maryland’s crab industry remains highly gender segregated and rife with discrimination. Workers report that men earn a higher wage for the crab-cleaning than their women counterparts do as crab pickers. Men are occasionally offered the chance to switch between crab-picking and crab-cleaning jobs and are paid in higher hourly rates. Women are not afforded the same employment mobility, suggesting systemic violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
According to the report, pregnancy discrimination and family separation are embedded in the H-2B program on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Nearly 40 % of the women crab pickers surveyed report being pregnant during their employment; they describe being compelled to hide their pregnancy from recruiters due to fear they wouldn’t be recruited to work in the United States. The majority of pregnant workers are also required to move out of employer-provided housing towards the end of their pregnancy terms. Additionally, while 88% of workers reported having children, the majority reported leaving their children and families behind for eight months at a time, citing the difficulties in obtaining H-4 visas for family members, and the lack of housing options as reasons.
“Family separation has practically become a condition of employment,” said Cori Alonso-Yoder, Visiting Director of Georgetown Law’s Federal Legislation Clinic and CDM Board Member. “The indignity of separation on workers and the potential harms to their children necessitate reforms to the H-2B program. No one should have to choose between providing for their family and being with their children.”
The report provides substantial recommendations to agencies and policymakers at the state, federal, and international levels to urgently reform and address these systemic wrongs. These include an enforceable emergency standard for the pandemic at the state level from Maryland’s Governor and Office of Safety and Health (MOSH) as well as from The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) at the federal level to ensure the safety of workers in the short-term.
Sulma Guzman, Policy Director and Legislative Counsel at CDM, states, “The pandemic and this report highlight the importance of our continued work and the need for enforceable protections. Migrant worker women should not have to risk their lives when going to work. Now more than ever, we need our federal and state executives to issue worker protections.”
Beyond the pandemic, Breaking the Shell tasks state and national legislators with passing stronger legislation that regulates recruitment processes and sanction employers who utilize recruiters that charge excessive or improper fees to workers.
Senator Susan Lee, Maryland State legislator and co-sponsor of SB 742 – The Fair Recruitment and Transparency Act says, “Breaking the Shell is instrumental in informing me and other policymakers about migrant workers in the Eastern Shore who we otherwise might never effectively communicate with about their recruitment horrors. The report shines a much-needed light on people with inherent human dignity, but who are not easily seen or heard, and whose labor serves as the glue holding together the business behind Maryland’s signature cultural staple.”
Breaking the Shell: How Maryland’s Migrant Crab Pickers Continue to Be “Picked Apart” can be access online at: https://cdmigrante.org/breaking-the-shell/
About Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, Inc. (CDM)
Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, Inc. (CDM) envisions a world where migrant workers’ rights are respected, and laws and policies reflect their voices. Through education, outreach, and leadership development; intake, evaluation, and referral services; litigation support and direct representation; and policy advocacy; CDM empowers Mexico-based migrant workers to defend and protect their rights as they move between their home communities in Mexico and their workplaces in the United States. www.cdmigrante.org
About American University Washington College of Law, Immigrant Justice Clinic
The Washington College of Law’s Immigrant Justice Clinic provides representation on a broad range of cases and projects involving individual immigrants and migrants. The Immigrant Justice Clinic serves migrants and their communities in the D.C. metropolitan area, the greater United States, and beyond. Student attorneys handle matters that develop core lawyering skills, such as interviewing, counseling, negotiation, and trial advocacy, while cultivating complementary skills in the areas of policy and legislative advocacy, community organizing, and working with the media.
About Georgetown University Law Center, Federal Legislation Clinic
The Federal Legislation Clinic at Georgetown University Law Center instructs law students in the practical aspects of legislative lawyering. For over twenty-five years, the Federal Legislation Clinic has offered experiential opportunities for students to learn the unique skills associated with being a lawyer who practices at the intersection of law, advocacy, and politics. While focusing on federal legislation, the Federal Legislation Clinic also works in areas of state and local legislation that implicate federal law.