A new Virginia government report on migrant farm labor, citing rampant cases of substandard living conditions and abuse of workers, has recommended major changes in state laws to improve labor camps and tighten enforcement of long-ignored rules intended to protect workers.
State officials proposed pumping almost $3 million into programs to improve housing, medical care, education and employment conditions of migrant farm workers on Virginia's isolated Eastern Shore in the next two years.
The report, a product of a six-month investigation by state officials, described problems of substandard housing, low wages, unsafe working conditions, "phenomenally high" rates of alcoholism, infant mortality and malnutrition, and "crew leaders who keep workers in a virtual state of peonage through physical abuse . . . and an ever-mounting cycle of illicit debts.
"The story told in these reports is not a pleasant one," the 27-page report began. "Regrettably, it is a story that we found to be true, although conditions are improving, on Virginia's Eastern Shore."
The study, undertaken by the administration of former governor Charles S. Robb, was prompted by a federal civil rights report released last summer that criticized conditions affecting Eastern Shore migrant farm workers as among the worst in the nation. Many of the high-ranking Robb officials who conducted the study have joined the new administration of Democratic Gov. Gerald L. Baliles and are expected to press for action on the findings.
"We've made too much progress to let the matter disappear," said Secretary of Human Resources Eva S. Teig, who was instrumental in the study. "It's on everyone's minds."
Robb, who left office Saturday, gave the report a lukewarm endorsement. He included $231,000 of the requested $3 million for programs in his proposed fiscal 1986-88 budget.
"It's my view that it needs to be carefully reviewed in consultation with all affected parties, including growers and those committed to the needs of migrant laborers before action is taken on its other recommendations," Robb said in a statement made available with the report today.
The problems of migrant workers, described in the report as "the most educationally, economically and socially disadvantaged group in America," traditionally have been given a low priority by the state bureaucracy and the General Assembly.
"There has to be a balanced approach," said Del. Alson H. Smith Jr. (D-Winchester), a businessman and apple grower in the Shenandoah Valley. "If we don't look after the growers, there would be no need for migrant farm workers . . . . You can't furnish a high-class hotel for these people, but at the same time they have to be furnished necessary housing."
The study concluded that the lives of migrant workers "are often characterized by poverty, inadequate nutrition, poor housing and sanitation and high incidences of health problems."
The study found that housing accommodations had improved significantly on the Eastern Shore, but that one of every four labor camps continues to operate with serious health and safety violations. Two years ago, however, an estimated 75 percent of the camps did meet health and safety requirements.
State officials also reported that up to 75 percent of migrant workers in the state are affected by alcoholism.
The report's recommendations covered a wide range of issues from inadequate health services to substandard living conditions, including:
*New laws requiring the registration and inspection of all farm labor camps. "Virginia allows many migrant housing units to avoid regulation," the report said.
*Appropriation of $500,000 in state matching funds for a migrant labor camp rehabilitation program to help growers bring existing structures into compliance with state standards.
*A program of private-public sector funding for the construction of new migrant labor camps, with the state contributing $450,000.
*Creation of a migrant worker policy committee, composed of representatives from the nine state agencies that regulate migrant farm labor conditions, in an effort to coordinate services for farm workers.
*Increasing the number of health inspectors and sanitarians to help police labor camp standards.