Crabs and visas

Our view: Crab processors say living and working conditions for temporary guest workers aren't anything like the Dickensian allegations of a recent report, but industry must embrace extra scrutiny

July 19, 2010

Perhaps no other Maryland business is as dependent on seasonal guest workers as the crab processing industry. Hundreds of people come into the country each year, most from Mexico, to pick crabmeat from the shell at fewer than two dozen plants scattered around the Chesapeake Bay.

This dependency on the H-2B visa program has always been controversial. And crab processors found themselves back in the spotlight last week after the release of a report alleging guest workers have been ill-treated with incidents of harassment, low wages, and substandard housing.

In response, Maryland processors say the claims are untrue and believe the report, which was produced by American University's Washington College of Law and a migrant worker advocacy group, was intended as an attack on H-2B. They challenged reporters to visit their facilities, including local homes that serve as dormitories for workers, to see for themselves.

This newspaper has been down this road before. Five years ago, The Baltimore Sun's Chris Guy was dispatched to Mexico and parts of the Eastern Shore to chronicle the lives of crab industry workers both here and abroad. What he found were men and women willing to make a difficult choice — to labor in a demanding job in relative isolation for half the year in order to earn far more money for their families than would otherwise be available.

That crab processors can't find labor closer to home is well documented. Last year, the industry went to great lengths to recruit Maryland residents (at least until Congress extended the H-2B program by Labor Day). They found few takers.

It's not simply that the work is hard. Most plants are off the beaten path in tiny villages like Dorchester County's Hooper's Island. The jobs pay $7.25 an hour or $2.50 per pound, whichever is greater. That's not enough to either justify or afford moving a family. Work is only seasonal and can be erratic (when crabs aren't being caught, they aren't being picked). And higher wages aren't economical in an industry that is already struggling with foreign competition.

Of course, none of that excuses the kinds of mistreatment the report alleges. Workers should be able to switch to a different H-2B-qualified job if they choose. They should have decent housing and safe working conditions. Just because they are not U.S. citizens does not mean they should not receive the same employment law protections.

Indeed, if advocates can point to specific and ongoing violations of law, they have an obligation to do so and provide that information to authorities while still protecting worker identities. And inspectors from the state Department of Labor Licensing and Regulation ought to be the ones taking advantage of the processors' offer to survey facilities and housing as soon as possible.

Ideally, the H-2B program should be beneficial to all. It can help lift disadvantaged people in other countries out of poverty and help Maryland's economy as well. One study found each H-2B visa accounts for 2.5 jobs for Americans. The beneficial impact on Dorchester County alone is estimated to be $20 million annually.

But participants ought to understand that they will have to bear scrutiny above and beyond that given the typical small employer and a less vulnerable workforce. Immigration policy has become too polarized a debate in this country for that not to happen. As such, protecting foreign workers' rights should be regarded as being in everyone's interests.

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