Benny Perry, up from Florida to pick anything that pays a buck, hasn't found work in this Eastern Shore migrant camp for weeks -- and it shows.
From the wooden bench where he has spent so much of the summer, the 35-year-old black man stares out at the flat landscape through stickly yellow eyes that are as barren as the drought-blighted fields he came north to harvest.
"A friend of mine said I could come up here and get work," explained Perry, "but I've only worked a couple of weeks on and off." Broke and unable to get a job anywhere else, he plans to hang around for another month to "see if it rains and things pick up."
Perry is one of Virginia's "indentured vagabonds, itinerant field hands who move into the state for a month or two each year while working the East Coast farming circuit. The migrants usually go from camp to camp and from crop to crop, hiring themselves out at $3.10 an hour, the federal minimum wage, for back-breaking stoop labor that many local residents shun.
But this year the migrants are facing an added problem: they are trapped by one of the worst droughts in Virginia's history, one so severe the migrants are having trouble finding farmers with anything to pick.
About 6,000 predominantly black and Hispanic farm workers arrive in the state each summer, most finding shelter in one of the dusty, dilapidated camps that have sprung up along the Eastern Shore's rural Accomack and Northhampton counties. Traveling along or with their familes, the migrants say they can make $90-$100 a week in a good season, though the norm is often closer to $50-$60.
This is not a good season, however, and a great many of the farm hands have found their hard life harder. "I've been here two and a half weeks, and I just got into the fields this morning," said Henry Salazar, who, at 49, has been a migrant farm worker since he was 18. "My dad showed me how to work in the fields, and I've had more luck in the fields than in the city." t
As he talks, Salazar sits in the storefront offices of the Migrant and Seasonal Farm Workers Association -- waiting to apply for food stamps. It is, he says proudly, the first time that he has had to ask for government help, though he and some members of his crew did borrow money from their crew leader when they arrived here from North Carolina and could not get work.
The crew leader is a central figure in the migrant's life. He is the one who hires a group of workers, transports them from camp to camp and contracts with various farmers for their services. He is also the one who sees that they are fed and provided with enough amenities to keep them in the camps even when work is scarce.
Since many workers suffer from a drinking problem, the amenity they usually want is alcohol -- which a person familiar with the camps here says still serves as the "regular method for bonding" the workers to their crew leaders. "Camp life is conducive to drinking, and most crew leaders are happy to keep the liquor flowing because it keeps the workers pacified . . . and broke."
"It's all done on credit," says Vince Carroll, managing attorney for the Legal Aid-sponsored Virginia Farm Workers Legal Assistance Project. "They are given meals, booze, cigarettes, small loans, even clothes so that they won't walk off the camp." When the migrants do get paid -- once a week if they work steadily -- the cost of the items is deducted from their wages.
Stuck in a rural campsite, often without transportation and miles from the nearest store, the migrants are forced to pay whatever the crew leaders demands and bargains are rare. A can of beer goes for $1; so does a pack of cigarettes. Meals are usually $2.50 to $3 each, and if a worker has a thirst for some "Mad Dog" (Mogen David wine), it will cost him $4 to $5 instead of the $1.25 it sells for at an Eastern Shore market.
"You spend the first couple of weeks of the season here, work only 10 hours the whole time, eat at the camp, have a couple of beers and some cigarettes, and you're behind already," says lawyer Carroll. "The real money for the crew leaders is not from his crew working but from the profit his makes for the things he sells."
And, Carroll adds, since many of the migrants are functionally illiterate some crew leaders increase their own take by short-changing their workers. Or, he said, some crew leaders lie about the amount of money the workers are earning so that the migrants can't receive food stamps or any other supplemental public assistance.
Still, some migrants do escape the farming circuit along the way. "The crews start out in Florida with 30 and by the time they get here they're down to 15," says Carroll. When this happens, the crew leaders "sweep" the skid row sections of New York, Philadelphia, Wilmington and Washington looking for replacements. With promises of jobs, housing, food and drink, they lure flop house residents and deinstitutionalized mental patients to the good life on the farm.
The bucolic image is soon shattered when the new recruits come face to face with the tiny wooden huts and cement cinderblock stalls where they live. Often housed four or more to a room, its floor bare, the workers sleep in old, lump single beds or on cots or mattresses thrown on the bare floor. The small camps have outhouses, the larger ones more modern "porta-potties." When it's working there is hot and cold water for the camp's central shower facility.
Though some are better than others, some camps are more suitable for animals than humans. One migrant shelter is still called "The Stables," a not so nostaligic reminder that it once housed horses.
One crew leader, a burly boss named Eddie Saunders, presides over his camp and farm hands with a tough-minded, patronizing belligerence that, with a few exceptions, typifies the men who supervise the migrants.
For him, the issue is "control," and the 43-year-old tobacco-chewing Saunders resents any intrusion by private or government social agencies who come around the camps espousing migrant rights or benefits.
"I've had social workers come in and make the people feel dissatisfied," he complained. Dressed in dark sports clothes, wearing a gold chain around his neck, a diamond-studded pinky ring, and a jaunty leather cap, Saunders said that offers of help do him no good.
"I've been out here 21 years, and I love these people," he said, "but a lot of them won't work. If you gave them $40 right now, they wouldn't work in the morning.
Even Saunders concedes that pay is low and camp conditions "should be better." He said most of his crew comes with him because they can't make a living anywhere else. He said he treats his men right -- "The bus takes them to town every Saturday night" and gets tired of being blamed for migrant labor problems.
"Everybody jumps on the crew leader instead of the farmers," he said angrily, "and Congress is full of farmers."
It starts in April when the first migrants trickle to the Shore to pick asparagus. Next, the season turns its attentions to the spring cucumbers and by June more workers have arrived to help "grade" the potatoes, washing and bagging them for sale. Then come the tomatoes, then more cucumbers and finally the sweet corn.
"This summer has been one of the hottest," says Beatrice Rivera, a former migrant who is now a paralegal with the Farm Workers Legal Project. "It gets so bad that there are days when the workers just can't stand it and they leave the field early. People complain then that migrants don't want to work, but I'd like to put them all in the fields for just a half a day in 90-degree heat and see how they like it. I mean even mules get put in the shade in the heat of the day. Are migrants less than animals?"
Rivera, 42, married at 16, had seven children and traveled the migrant stream with her husband for 18 years before quitting it in 1966. Now divorced she is an outspoken crusader for migrant rights and turns bitter on the subject of their exploitation.
"The crew leader gets the men drunk so they can't remember how much beer they bought and he can overcharge them," she complains. "The farmers fix the camps up a little and then act as if they put the migrants in a mansion and they came in and destroyed it. And the social agencies? You get them out of the office for five minutes and they die from the heat. Some of those people sort of resent it when they have to help, even though they're being paid to do so."
To criticisms that the Shore's services to migrants frequently overlap, Rivera agrees.
"In some ways the migrants are a tool to help us -- they provide nice jobs," she says. "But only a little of the money trickles down to the migrants, and there's no long-term service being provided for them. Unless they get education and skills -- something no one can take away for life -- they're always going to be in the same way."
But Phillip McCaleb, executive vice president of the Shore's Potatoe and Vegetable Growers Association, says so much money is being spent on migrants already "that you could probably pension off every one of them." And he warns that local, state and federal government regulations mandating minimum wage and living standards for migrants are driving costs up and forcing farmers to machine-harvested crops, such as grain.
He complains that Army barracks and the local restaurant where his grower association meets wouldn't pass the health and safety regulations laid down for the migrant camps.
"I feel the camp conditions have greatly improved and that a lot of the problems we have now are caused by the camp occupants," he said. "I've seen the trash piled up outside the door and holes cut into the floors to use as a night privy rather than going to the bath facilities."
Those who are in daily contact with migrants dispute McCaleb's assessment of camp conditions and his unflattering portrait of the workers. Sister Regina Hudson, a Catholic nun and a nurse who coordinates the Delmarva Rural Ministries migrant health project, say the field hands keep the camps as clean as they can but don't have much to work with.
"They all have a place to lie down and a place to eat, but I know I personally couldn't live like that," she said. As for claims that the migrants don't always use the toilet facilities, she says: "If it's pouring rain out, you are not going to walk across the field to go to the bathroom."
The nuns who run the Shore's migrant health clinic report that camp life leaves many migrants in a generally rundown condition that reflects the problems of those who don't eat well and drink a lot. They suffer from hypertension, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart problems and tuberculosis and are plagued with lower back pain and muscle strain.
"They complain of the hard work, but we all feel they're kind of a happy people who enjoy just sitting and talking with you," she said, Sister Regina. p"We know migrants are looked upon by some as dirty, disease-ridden rowdy and ignorant, but we find just the opposite."