Report criticizes treatment of Mexican women recruited to pick Md. crabs

Elisa Martinez Tovar, left, has worked as a crab picker in Mississippi, and Margarita Gallegos Mireles has worked in Maryland.
Elisa Martinez Tovar, left, has worked as a crab picker in Mississippi, and Margarita Gallegos Mireles has worked in Maryland. (Wendy Galietta/the Washington Post)
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By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 15, 2010

Hundreds of Mexican women who travel to Maryland's Eastern Shore every summer to pick crabs are isolated and sometimes exploited by employers and recruiters, according to a report that urges changes to a U.S. guest-worker program.

The report, released Wednesday by American University and the Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, reflects interviews with 43 of the 1,000 or so women who worked at 11 crab companies last year. They described being charged illegal fees by recruiters in Mexico and enduring substandard working conditions in Maryland.

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.

"They get no formal training, they get cuts and infections, and they are charged fees to participate," said Jayesh Rathod, an American University law professor who co-wrote the report.

But Jack Brooks, president of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association, disputed the conditions described in the report and said that crab pickers are treated well.

"My observation in going down there is that the workers are happy, the housing is adequate, and the people pay their employees' transportation and recruiting fees," Brooks said. "So I'm not quite sure where all this is coming from."

The H2B visa program allows U.S. employers to hire foreign workers for temporary nonagricultural work. The Maryland crab industry depends heavily on the visas because Mexican seasonal workers make up 70 to 80 percent of the pickers. Crab pickers are generally women; men are hired for heavier work. The employers apply for the visas and hire recruiters in Mexico to find workers, and they are supposed to pay for travel expenses.

Last year, the Maryland seafood industry faced a crisis when crab houses were unable to secure enough H2B visas to hire pickers for the season. After pressure from Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) and others, the Department of Homeland Security released additional visas. There have been calls to expand the program, which is capped at 66,000 application slots. Last year, 44,847 H2B visas were granted to landscapers, hotels, restaurants and other businesses that rely on temporary, seasonal labor, and an 4,836 more were issued later in the year. In previous years, additional visas were granted for returning temporary workers.

The Labor Department plans to revise H2B regulations. The authors of the report said they hope the changes will include more stringent enforcement of rules protecting temporary workers, many of whom return year after year. The report recommends stricter oversight of recruiters, allowing employees to switch employers if they aren't satisfied with working conditions or pay, and educating employees about health, safety and workers' rights.

Margarita Gallegos Mireles, 55, a widow who lives in Mexico with her seven children, said that when she first came to pick crabs in Maryland in 1998, "I thought I was going to earn mountains of money."

But after paying a recruiter, who she said charged her a fee and lent her money for it with interest, and buying a bus ticket to Maryland, she estimated she had spent 10,000 pesos ($785). Once on the Eastern Shore, she said, she had to pay rent.

Her earnings were "less than I thought, because I had to pay so many expenses," she said. Still, she returned a few years later to work at the crab houses again, this time in Virginia. "It was worth it. It allowed me to save money, my kids studied, and even though it was difficult, I was able to pay those costs."

Her description is at odds with one offered by Bryan Hall, owner of G.W. Hall & Son in Fishing Creek, Md., who employs 17 crab pickers from Mexico. Hall said he pays all of the workers' fees, travel and rent; drives them to the doctor if they get sick; and provides housing with satellite TV and air conditioning.

"I've had the same girls come every year for 15 years," he said. "They're treated good. If they're not treated well, they're not going to come back."

Terry Vincent, owner of Lindy's Seafood in Woolford, Md., employs 31 Mexican crab pickers, including some interviewed for the report. Vincent said he also pays the recruiters' fees and the bus fare to and from Mexico, $1,000 to $1,200 per worker. The crab pickers, he said, "pay nothing to come here."

Vincent said that his employees make at least minimum wage, and more for higher productivity, and that he doesn't charge his employees rent. The women, many of whom have worked for him each season for 14 years, live in new housing. They sleep 10 to a room, in bunk beds, because "they want to sleep in one room together."

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