What 'home' looks like for a migrant worker

Oct 8, 2013

This week I’m bringing you segments from my documentary, “Voices from the Fields," a story of migrant workers in Michigan. It will air on Stateside on Wednesday.

When migrant workers travel to multiple states throughout a year, following the crops that are ready to harvest, they never really have a place to call home.

They can’t afford to pay for multiple apartments or houses to only live in a few months or weeks out of the year, and it’s hard to find hotels to stay in when you are traveling from state to state usually during peak tourism season.

That’s why farms that hire migrant workers often provide housing for very low prices, or even for free. But as the saying goes, sometimes you get what you pay for.

Staying in a dilapidated house

Elizalde Ramirez Vasquez is an undergraduate from MSU. Who says he lived in a horrible house when he harvested tobacco in Kentucky over winter break.

“Our house was not even a house. We live in this raggedy-old place. I don’t know how people can live in it. But it’s our way of life, we have no other option,” he says.

Ramirez Vasquez worked 12 hours or more every day for 3 weeks straight in the tobacco fields.  He cut the tobacco stalks and had to pick each tobacco leaf off the stalk by hand. Harvesting tobacco can be painful, even dangerous.

Ramirez Vasquez gets blisters all over his hands after harvesting and has been hospitalized twice for tobacco poisoning. Tobacco can get absorbed through your skin, so when you are handling it as many hours as Ramirez Vasquez has, getting tobacco poisoning isn’t uncommon. And there are other side effects as well.  

“It’s hell. My face doesn’t stop burning. My eyes don’t stop stinging,” Ramirez Vasquez says.

The work isn’t pretty, and neither was the house where he stayed while he worked the tobacco fields. It was provided by the farm.

When Ramirez Vasquez got back from break, he showed me pictures of the migrant camp.

Broken wires dangle from the ceiling where a light should be, some walls are covered with water damage, others have insulation sticking out, the floor is covered with dirt and in the dead of winter, the place doesn’t have heat.

“I walked in the house, it was 30-40 degrees outside and it was colder in the house because the house had a cement floor. It was 10 degrees less in the house. I could see my breath when I walked inside. I could see my breath as I went to my bed,” Ramirez Vasquez says.

Ramirez Vasquez shows me pictures of the bathroom. There aren’t any faucets and there are big buckets in the tub. The shower doesn’t work. Ramirez Vasquez says back in high school he and his family would just use the lake near the camp to bathe.

“So that lake was our bathing area and the woods was our restroom. And I would go to school and I would see everybody else just walking with expensive cologne and perfume and I would say these people are so lucky because they had nice showers on a winter night, but not me,” Ramirez Vasquez says.

And remember the Hamilton’s who picked blueberries? Randy Hamilton Jr. and his Dad say they have similar horror stories.

“I mean some of the housing conditions that they provide you with is no good. I mean toilets are broke. . . You touch the door knobs and the door falls off,” Hamilton Jr. says.

Hamilton Sr. adds, “you’ve got a raccoon coming up from the hole of the sink and you’ve got the door falling off. You got the roof leaking, you got the screens off the windows. That's what we went through.”

Cozy homes

But not all migrant housing in terrible.

I tagged along on a migrant housing inspection at Uncle John’s Cider Mill, 30 miles north of Lansing. Mike Beck owns this farm, and migrant camp.

“It’s very much like a snowmobile cabin. I go to up north and use it myself a lot,” Beck says.

The place isn’t fancy, but at least it’s homey. There are family pictures on the refrigerator, the kitchen is decorated with wallpaper and curtains with farm and apple designs on them. There are individual bedrooms and a living room with furniture and a TV that are a little outdated, but it’s clean.

Migrant housing improvements in Michigan

Andy Raymond is one of the migrant housing inspectors for the state of Michigan.

He’s inspecting Beck’s migrant camp. Raymond and six other people make sure the 850 migrant camps across the state are up to code and licensed before the season begins. That’s a lot of camps, but it’s better than a few years ago when there were fewer than half the inspectors there are now.

“We’ve made a lot of headway, and there’s still room for improvement, but with more staff we are going to be able to really address some of the things that have been lacking in the past,” Raymond says.

For example, when there was only a staff of three for the whole state, the camp inspectors couldn’t check back in on housing conditions once the season began, and that’s when the majority of the problems happen.

It used to be if some of the housing ended up getting licensed, but still needed more work to be done, there was never a follow up inspection to make sure it happened. But finally this year, Raymond and his crew were able to do in-season inspections.

The cost burden for farmers

Providing workers with decent housing isn’t cheap. Craig Anderson is with the Michigan Farm Bureau. He says just basic maintenance costs around a thousand dollars for each housing unit.

“So if you look at $1,000, that’s a pretty significant cost that the employer is bearing,” Anderson says.

And Mike Beck, the owner of Uncle John’s Cider Mill says he pays about that much in just monthly utility costs for the dozen or so workers on his farm.

But Beck says if he doesn’t provide housing, he won’t have workers.

“If a grower wants to exist, especially in the crop world, he has to have housing available,” Beck says.

And Beck has a pretty good relationship with his workers partly because of the housing he provides them. The pictures on the refrigerator in the kitchen are of the family that has been coming to work for Beck and live in this house for over a decade.