| Follow Us: Facebook Twitter Youtube RSS Feed


Do Good: Michigan Migrant Legal Aid advocates for basic human dignity, safe working conditions

Teresa Hendricks

Teresa Hendricks

More than 90,000 migrants work in Michigan fields with their family members. Forty-nine percent of Michigan's migrants come from Mexico, 29 percent of whom are undocumented workers. Michigan Migrant Legal Aid helps migrants gain fair food access, with protection from domestic violence and unsafe living conditions, and with wage and hour disputes.

They are the last to complain and the first to sign up for difficult and often dangerous work. They and their families live in unsafe housing. Their incomes average $12,000 a year, and most struggle to meet basic needs.

Meet Michigan's migrant workers.

These willing, hardworking, and economical workers are vital to Michigan's economy, but a migrant family's life is far from easy. Many work 15-hour days in the hot sun with little or no access to bathrooms or fresh water for drinking and washing. A delay in starting work, a missed hour of work, or one missed paycheck can upset their fragile existence.

Many migrant workers have a hard time overcoming language barriers, and their transitory employment makes it difficult for their children to stay in school. Adding to this quandary, migrants often endure discrimination, hate crimes, hostile work environments, sexual harassment, and racial profiling. They also suffer hundreds of millions of dollars in wage theft each year.

Enter Michigan Migrant Legal Aid (MMLA), an independent, nonprofit organization that has offered a continuum of services since 1973. MMLA is governed by a volunteer board of directors and operated by a staff of eight.

Executive director Teresa Hendricks and her team advocate on behalf of migrant and seasonal farmworkers in Michigan for basic human dignity, on-the-job and environmental safety, safe housing, health care access, and myriad other needs. The center served 3,000 people in 2012.

"On average, our clients read at the sixth-grade level and work 90 hours a week," says Hendricks. "Few of these workers fully understand their rights to a healthy work environment, fair wages, safe housing, public benefits, or immigration law. We saw a specific need to serve this population."

More than 90,000 migrants work in Michigan fields with their family members. Forty-nine percent of Michigan's migrants come from Mexico, 29 percent of whom are undocumented workers. The average family has five members. The types of cases range from fair food access to domestic violence, from unsafe living conditions to wage and hour disputes.

"We also see labor trafficking and minor children working," says Hendricks. "The youngest was four years old. The wages average under $1.00/hour. It's piece rate."

Undocumented workers are vulnerable, especially those with no family and no money. In one instance, a trafficker recruited six migrant men from Florida and drove them from town to town to apply for full-time jobs paying $8.00 an hour. The trafficker beat the men, rationed their food, and forced them to hand over their paychecks.

"In this case, our center helped the workers with immigration papers," Hendricks says. "Victims can get trafficker visas, so now they're documented." In cases of domestic violence or sexual harassment, the prosecutor can obtain UVisa certification for the worker and family, so they all can become legal.

In Michigan, 45 different crops must be hand harvested (e.g., blueberries, apples, and strawberries). Michigan is the fifth-largest producer in the United States and the second most agriculturally diverse state, leading the nation in the production of 19 commodities. Migrant workers harvest over 200 commodities from 10 million acres of Michigan farmland. The Michigan agri-food industry contributes more than $63 billion annually to the state’s economy. It employs one million Michigan residents -- nearly 25 percent of our workforce.

Farm workers who migrate live in temporary housing while in Michigan, with minimal safety standards to protect them. "Michigan attracts families, and we try to protect them," says Hendricks. "Many live in dangerous living conditions. The housing situation is terrible. Many of the housing units may go uninspected for safety compliance, putting the health and safety of the families staying there at risk."

Broken stairs or handrails, contaminated water, lack of window screens, open sewer pits, structural weakness in the floors and roofs, and other hazards are in violation of licensing standards.

"There are myriad state and federal regulations to protect workers in a work for a living situation," says Hendricks. The Fair Labor Worker Protection Act and the Agricultural Worker Protection Act are two examples. Growers must renew their licenses each year through the Michigan Department of Agriculture.

"We make sure that housing laws are enforced," Hendricks says. Although she sees some progress in field sanitation, there is room for improvement. Many growers now provide port-o-johns in the field. Not so long ago, migrants lacked access to drinking water with individual cups, or water for hand washing.

"We reward good growers," says Hendricks. The 'Good Grower Award' recognizes those who have a socially responsible way to get food to market. Of 900 licensed camps, 30 percent are good growers.

More progress is needed. "We must 'unteach' prejudice," Hendricks says. "We need appreciation of these people and [need to] understand their sacrifices. They are very family oriented. We could not survive without migrant workers. Produce is the third largest industry. There is no breakfast, lunch, or dinner without them."

Located at 1104 Fuller Ave. NE in Grand Rapids, MMLA is partly funded by the State Bar Foundation of Michigan and grants from Grand Rapids Community Foundation, Gerber Foundation, United Way, the Steelcase Foundations, and the Meijer Foundation.

Get involved:

Donate to Michigan Migrant Legal Aid.

Photography by Adam Bird

Signup for Email Alerts
Signup for Email Alerts