A new report out from American University and the Centro de los Derechos del Migrante describes the horrible conditions for women who work in crab picking operations in Maryland. The Washington Post writes:
The women, few of whom spoke English, said they lived in housing with backed-up sewage and no working stove, lacked transportation to buy groceries or seek medical care, were not trained for their jobs or told how their paychecks and taxes were handled, and had a hard time picking enough pounds of crabmeat to make minimum wage.
You can download the report here. It has data to back up its claims, but also has the stories and words of the women involved. It’s so rare to read from working-class laborers in the food chain–they are drowned out by the chefs, the bloggers (including us), the femivores and the rooftop farmers. God love the Eagle Street Roof Farm but they were on the radio again today.
Here’s the story of Elisa:
In 2000, when Elisa was 28 years old, she left behind her children – aged two, four, six, and nine – to migrate to the U.S. for the first time. In making this decision, Elisa followed in the footsteps of her parents and her husband, all of whom, like Elisa, had sought work in the U.S. because they could no longer make ends meet. Elisa spoke to the local recruiter, a prominent individual in the community who, at the time, was placing only women in the crab-picking jobs in the U.S. After three long and expensive trips from her hometown to the U.S. consulate in Monterrey, Elisa finally got an H-2B visa. She paid for all of her bus expenses from her hometown to Monterrey,and from Monterrey to Maryland. When she finally arrived on the Eastern Shore, she lived in a temporary home that she shared with seven other women; the house had a second floor bathroom that leaked onto the first floor.When she started working,Elisa realized that the male workers, who would bring the crabs to the women, were paid more and worked longer hours. The women, on the other hand, did only crab-picking work, and feared being sent home to Mexico if they did not work quickly enough. At times, there was sim- ply not enough work. One month, Elisa worked only one week. During that month, she sat at home, await- ing additional work. She often worried about the rent payments due to her employer, how she would pay for food to eat, and whether she could afford to send money to her family in Mexico.
And here is more from the report:
All of the women interviewed earned were paid a piece rate – typically $2.00 or $2.25 per pound of crabmeat picked. In order to earn the federal min- imum wage of $7.25 over the course of a 40-hour workweek, a crab picker earning $2.00 per pound must pick 145 lbs of crabmeat per week, which requires handling over 200 crabs daily. Women who are unable to work with sufficient speed to earn the minimum wage are either sent home, or
– in the case of more accommodating employers – are switched to an hourly wage rate.
The women interviewed universally reported experiencing cuts on their hands and arms while picking crabs with sharp knives. In some instances, the cuts allow a dangerous seaborne bacterium, vibrio vulnificus, to infect the skin, causing blistering or lesions.10 A surprising number of women reported either having suffered from or witnessing a co-worker suffer from the disease, which has a 50 percent mortality rate once it enters the bloodstream.
Who’s crabby now, eh? (You knew that was coming.) We claim to pay so much attention to “where our food comes from” but thinking about “who it comes from” is important to. The working conditions for these women are as toxic as any pesticide.