Haitian migrant worker Renard Du Bois said he got into a bitter argument Tuesday night with his crew leader at the Quantico Road labor camp here. Du Bois believed he had picked enough tomatoes earlier that day to earn $4.50, but crew leader Bud Luther demanded instead that Du Bois hand him $5.50.
Luther explained that Du Bois owed the camp $10 for a week's rent at Quantico Road, and demanded the $5.50 to settle the bill. When Du Bois protested, saying he needed some money to live on, he said Luther ordered him and four other Haitian migrant workers to leave.
"He tell me," Du Bois recalled in broken English, "get out. He take me and the others to bus station. He say you go to Florida, you go to New York, you go to Canada, get out." At midnight, Du Bois said, he and the four others found themselves at the Trailways bus station here, penniless and on the road to nowhere.
Members of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, holding a forum here today on living conditions among migrant workers on the Eastern Shore, shook their heads as they examined the receipts Du Bois and the four others had received, deducting $10 from their meager pay. The anecdote was typical of the problems detailed at the forum.
Legal Aid attorney Leonard Sandler told the commission earlier that crew leaders must, according to law, provide migrant workers with a contract specifying lodging expenses and wages. Du Bois said neither he nor the other Haitians had been given a contract. Sandler also said workers are entitled to the state minimum hourly wage of $3.35 when their income from picking does not add up to the equivalent amount. But the Haitians, like most other workers here, rarely receive that money, Sandler said, adding that many of them don't even know they are entitled to it.
The Haitians' remarks before seven members of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Office of the Civil Rights Commission came at the close of 1 1/2 days of testimony from growers, state health and regulatory officials and volunteer personnel and migrants. This forum and earlier ones in Delaware and Virginia grew out of renewed interest in the plight of migrants that followed the deaths of two residents of the Westover camp near here last month.
Witnesses indicated that despite its rundown rows of barracks and limited running water, the Somerset County Growers Association camp at Westover is not the single or worst offender of labor, health and housing code violations of the camps.
"Frankly, I haven't seen much improvement in migrant living conditions in 40 years," said Edward Rutledge, regional director for the Mid-Atlantic office of the commission, who has been involved with migrant issues since 1941.
Commission members found the task of defining problem areas itself an awesome task. "All the different stories you hear," sighed Gail Winslow, a commission member from Chevy Chase.
The descriptions of conditions given by growers and members of advocacy organizations contrasted sharply. "Only Lewis Carroll could reconcile the two," said Sandler. He and others had contested grower Edwin Long's description of migrants as "happy folk who drive around in Lincoln Continentals and $12,000 vans."
The wiry, gray-haired Long, chief operator of the Westover camp, held the commission's rapt attention longer than any speaker. A cousin of state Del. R. C. Biggy Long, Edwin Long is a tomato grower and packer who sits on Gov. Harry Hughes' Commission on Migratory and Seasonal Farm Labor.
"Migrants would love to be left alone," he said, referring to the access he denied earlier this year to nurses seeking to work in Westover. "If he the migrant gets sick, he'll ask for help. He's a pretty smart boy." And later, "They the Hispanic workers are smarter than you think."
Long said he saw no need for the presence of a health clinic on the Westover premises. Pressed by commission members, he said that the death of a 57-year-old black American migrant of an apparent internal hemorrhage occurred at the time health workers were being denied access to the camp.
Several federal agency officials said they lack authority to enforce the rules or that contradictory regulations made enforcement difficult. Angelica Jimenez from the Maryland Department of Human Resources said she "has the responsibility but not the authority" to see that regulations are enforced. And, she said, "I have been denied access to talk to workers in some of the camps. My regulations say I can't go in if the employer doesn't want me. I follow the regulations, that way I don't make mistakes."
Larry Liberatore of the U.S. Department of Labor testified that there were no takers in Maryland for federal loans for growers who want to improve migrant housing. He said that growers do not want to be restricted by federal liability. "We've had an application on file by Westover since 1974 and we still haven't been able to work anything out," he said.
Spokesmen for the advocacy organizations agreed that health care was one of the principal problems faced by migrants. But both Sandler and Sue Canning of the Delmarva Rural Ministries pointed to other equally important issues. They said that state officials often do not cooperate in helping migrants get their rights. Food stamps were cited as a common example.
Anselme Remy, associate coordinator for the Haitian American Training Institute, said, "The migrant situation would greatly improve if those charged with enforcing the laws of the land showed more commitment and enthusiasm in the performance of their duties. Some public employes share certain values which make them natural allies of those who violate the rights of the migrant workers."