Most of the 7,500 migrant laborers who come to work Maryland's orchards and fields each year live in poor housing, are poorly fed, often face physical abuse by crew leaders and are paid substandard wages in violation of minimum wage laws, the Maryland Advisory Committee of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights charged in a report released yesterday.
In addition, a third of the 57 state-licensed migrant labor camps on the Eastern Shore operate with major health and safety deficiencies and should either be forced to improve their conditions or close, the committee said.
The product of a year-long study of migrant workers, the report also criticized the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and a state law enforcment official for ignoring what it described as the severe problems of the migrant farm laborers.
At a press conference yesterday, the Rev. Chester Wickwire, the Johns Hopkins University chaplain who chaired the committee, said: "Enforcement of state and federal regulations on migrant housing is inadequate" and should be pursued more aggressively in the future. "If present laws were enforced it would clean things up immensely, but they are not being enforced," he said.
Lou Panos, spokesman for Gov. Harry Hughes, said yesterday that the study was based on information gleaned from a forum a year ago. Since then, he said, "most of the major problems have been addressed."
Panos said that since the committee began its work, Hughes has set up a commission on migrant labor to monitor problems in the camps, and state health department officials now check conditions, such as numbers of beds. In addition, the state now has a five-year plan to evaluate and upgrade conditions in the camps, he said, and has helped fund a nutrition program.