Working under the hot summer sun, Ricardo Martinez and Yolanda Garrido concentrated on meeting their quota. They lost track of the hours, but bucket-by-bucket, seven days a week, they picked blueberries at a farm in Southwest Michigan.
The only way to get paid for the hours they worked was to meet their mandated quota, and even then, they were often left shortchanged.
For multiple years, the farm they worked for is alleged to have violated the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act through shoddy bookkeeping of hours, per-piece rate wages and refusing to disclose complete pay stubs.
The allegations came to light after Martinez, Garrido and four of their coworkers banded together to seek help from Migrant Legal Aid. The Grand Rapids-based nonprofit filed a federal class-action lawsuit against the farm in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan in the summer of 2016. A settlement reached in July 2018 resulted in the farm paying back wages to more than 300 people who worked there from 2011 to 2013.
The case is one example of the work performed by Migrant Legal Aid, which represents about 200 people per year in court cases involving worker mistreatment on Michigan farms, according to Teresa Hendricks, the organization’s senior litigator and executive director.
“Those lawsuits are civil, which means they take years to resolve,” she said.
That’s why the organization formed a coalition of retailers, restaurants, farmers and farmworkers compelled to try to end exploitation in the food supply chain more efficiently than taking a case through the judicial system.
“We have found that when we use a partner who is a retailer or a business that we can alert when there is something systemically wrong and give them an opportunity to immediately take corrective action or immediately investigate it, that remedy works with a couple of phone calls,” Hendricks said.
The program has been dubbed the Fair Food Project.
When Migrant Legal Aid identifies a situation in which farmworkers are underpaid, mistreated or in danger, they alert the network of stores and restaurants that are members of the Fair Food Project. If the members find a supplier they work with on the list, they can contact the farm to let them know that while workers are mistreated, they will stop purchasing from that supplier.
If the farm corrects their behavior, stores start buying from them again and the problem is resolved without having to go through a long legal process.
“The workers have a limited season to make the bulk of their money and the growers have a limited time to get their products to market,” Hendricks said. “Neither one of them would prefer to be in a lawsuit. This is a way that we offer voluntary compliance, immediate action and a market-based remedy.”
With its fertile farmland and 44 crops such as blueberries, cherries, apples and asparagus that all need to be hand-harvested, Michigan has become a hotbed for migrant and seasonal farmworkers as the No. 2 producer of fresh produce in the U.S.
“Most of what passes through our plates first passes through the hands of a migrant worker,” Hendricks said.
According to the Michigan Migrant and Seasonal Farmworker Enumeration Profiles Study, a project of the State of Michigan Interagency Migrant Services Committee, more than 94,000 seasonal migrant farmworkers and their family members live in the state during the summer.
For decades, Migrant Legal Aid has been representing workers and their families who have struggled because of systemic wage theft, labor trafficking, indentured servitude, child labor, unsafe and contaminated living conditions, dangers posed by pesticides and discrimination.
Yet the majority of these abuses go unreported or unresolved. Because of poverty, a transitory lifestyle, geographic isolation, mistrust or fear of law enforcement, and language difficulties, migrant and seasonal farmworkers in Michigan often face barriers to receiving civil legal services.
And while harvests in Michigan bring billions of dollars to the state’s economy, the average farmworker earns just $12,000 a year, according to Hendricks.
“They remain the poorest of the working poor,” she said.
So far, Meijer Inc., SpartanNash Co. and 81 independent retailers have joined the Fair Food initiative.
“We wanted to make certain that our commitment to having local products in our stores also aligned with the fact that these products were fairly sourced and the seasonal migrant workers who were providing these local products to our stores were treated fairly,” said Meredith Gremel, vice president of corporate affairs and communications at SpartanNash and executive director of SpartanNash Foundation.
In addition to multiple retail banners — Family Fare, Forest Hills Foods, Ada Fresh Market, VG’s Grocery and ValueLand — SpartanNash is also a leading distributor to the military and more than 2,100 retailers in all 50 states.
The company’s entire footprint falls under the Fair Food Project, Gremel told MiBiz.
“We’re the largest publicly-traded company here in West Michigan, so we have the opportunity to use our voice to help influence not only our independent customers but our communities in a really positive way,” she said.
Growers benefit from the program as well, by avoiding strikes and boycotts and ensuring fair competition in the market, according to Hendricks.
“The Fair Food Project is a Midwest-designed program to work the way companies and cultures work here. We’re working with their corporate responsibility departments instead of against them and they’re voluntarily cooperating with us,” Hendricks said. “It’s Midwest Nice: Tell us how to fix it and give us an opportunity to fix it first.”
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