IT'S LIKELY THAT most Americans, especially those who live in the East, think that the task of improving working and living conditions for migrant and seasonal farmworkers is a sectional one, something that needs to be done mainly in the West and Southwest. But there have been several news reports and government studies recently supporting those who say that migrant farmworkers in the Eastern United States also face severe problems. Last month, for instance, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission released a study that documented the wretched living conditions of agricultural laborers in mushroom camps in Delaware and Pennsylvania.
Staff writer Sharon Conway, in a story about illegal aliens on Maryland's Eastern Shore, found that all migrant workers there live in camps containing barrack-style wooden buildings that usually have neither heat nor indoor plumbing. The only showers in these camps are ordinarily in the communal bathroom at their center. The workers' "dining room" is the lawn between the barracks. A New York Times report on the plight of migrant workers in two North Carolina counties was even bleaker. "While some camps were clean and passably operated," the Times report stated, "much of the migrant system is still characterized by extraordinary human exploitation and degradation." Although the situation in these two counties may be extreme, other studies, including some done for federal agencies, uphold the view that most migrant workers in the East endure a harsh existence.
Why? One reason is the lack of a strong reform movement among the migrant farmworkers themselves. Another is the lack of public awareness of their plight. But the most important missing ingredient is effective enforcement of existing protective legislation for migrant farmworkers by local, state and federal authorities, according to a consultant's report on migrant and seasonal farmworkers done in 1976 for the Community Services Administration. "Farmworkers reman locked in cycle of poverty," the report started," . . . often spurned and ignored despite their direct contribution to the agricultural productivity of th nation.
The federal government must accept most of the responsibility for this inexcusable situation. Existing federal laws applicable to migrant farmworkers for the most part offer adequate protection. But they've too often proved worthless to the workers because of the indifference of federal authoritities and the lack of coordination among the many federal agencies involved. The solution to the plight of migrant farmworkers, all over the country, is complex. Some of the measures put forth by various farmworkers organizations and other groups are controversial. But President Carter's appointees at the Department of Labor, which has primary responsibility for protecting migrnat farmworkers, insist they intend to improve the situation. What they should do immediately, it seems to us, is to enforce the federal laws governing housing standards for migrant-lobor camps, as well as those governing the obligations of migrant crew leaders to their workers: and 2) improve existing federal social-service programs for the migrant farmworkers. That is the mimimum that needs doing.