Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

No Easy Harvest

Living conditions for migrant farmworkers aren't much better in many places than they were a generation ago. The issue is returning to state agendas.

Two months from now, Washington State will have a housing crisis. It will be the same one the state has every summer. More than 65,000 people will arrive to pick fruit, and they will need to sleep somewhere. What they will do is sleep anywhere--under any leaky roof they can find, or more often under no roof at all, out in the open. The lucky ones will have a reasonable semblance of decent housing. The majority will not.

Fruit is Washington's third largest industry, a $1.7 billion international business that ranks right behind aerospace and computer technology in the state economy. Every year, the cherry harvest alone attracts 17,000 workers. Even in 1998, a slim year, farmers harvested 18,000 acres of cherry trees, and earned a total of $128 million in the process.

The average fruit grower in Washington employs no one at all most of the year, then takes on 40 to 60 workers at harvest time. The cherry harvest for the entire state lasts from June through mid-July, but for any one farmer, the picking season is less than three weeks. Most farmers don't think it's necessary to provide elaborate housing for their seasonal help--and quite a few provide no facilities at all. They argue that three weeks of shelter is not worth the investment.

So after an ordinary harvest day, workers retreat to their cars, city parks, riverbanks--anyplace within a close distance of the farm. It's estimated that 60 percent have no place to sleep that can be called housing by any stretch of the imagination. It's hard for them to afford it; the average annual wage for agricultural workers in Washington hovers around $12,000, less than many full-time residents get from unemployment insurance.

For decades, as in most of the country, this has simply been the way of the harvest, and there has been little controversy. But just in the past couple of years, migrant-worker housing has matured into a political issue. Last year in Washington, public criticism grew so loud that Governor Gary Locke took on the problem as a priority. He toured migrant worker camps and declared that the conditions reminded him of the way his grandmother had lived in a refugee camp in Hong Kong in the 1940s.

Locke drafted and lobbied for a 10-year capital plan to improve living facilities for Washington's migrant workers. The legislature has appropriated an initial $8 million over two years, the startup to a $40 million decade-long commitment. There is no consensus on whether it will be enough to make a serious dent in the problem. But there is widespread agreement that the whole climate of opinion has been changing, in Washington State and in other parts of the country as well.

Last year, demonstrators in Oregon marched on the capitol to protest conditions at state-licensed migrant-worker camps. Organizers transported a cabin, 15 feet by 20 feet, used by a family of five at Camp Azul in Scholls, Oregon. Camp Azul had nearly been closed by the state after health and safety code violations, although it was not regarded as the worst of Oregon's 289 state-registered camps. Since then, Oregon's state leadership has begun discussing a program similar to Locke's.

Washington and Oregon are not alone. Last year, a survey by the University of Florida found a shortage of 3,511 housing units for migrant workers in just five counties of that state. Governor Jeb Bush and the Florida congressional delegation began lobbying for $20 million in federal funding to be set aside for migrant housing.

And, in fact, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which has rarely involved itself in rural issues, has announced plans to distribute $25 million to 29 states for the construction of permanent migrant-worker units. Monterey County, California, one of the nation's most famous migrant magnets, will be the recipient of a brand-new housing complex for 96 workers, admittedly a small step for a county that has thousands of such workers altogether.

The debate over farmworker housing is, in many ways, a debate between the states and the federal government. For years, farmers in most places allowed workers to bring their own tents and camp directly on private property. The farmers provided showers, toilets, and limited cooking facilities. These makeshift campgrounds were not up to the standards of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, but federal investigators did little to interfere with them. In effect, there was no set of regulations that was being consistently enforced, but there was also no progress in improving sanitary and living conditions in the campgrounds.

One reason is that both farmers and states have always been leery of any federal intervention at all. A few years ago, the Washington State Health Department reported that "the minimal enforcement effort over recent years has produced bitterness and resistance among the growers, and not much housing... strong enforcement of existing rules would result in more bitterness and resistance and less housing."

In part to keep the feds away, Washington State moved in 1995 to create its own provisional licensing program, under which growers were required to follow some, but not all, of the federal rules. For example, federal regulations require one hand-washing sink for every six people; the state settled on one for every 10. OSHA requires mechanical refrigeration to store perishable items for all occupants; the state said growers had three to five years to comply with this, but that coolers and ice would be acceptable in the interim. Unlike OSHA, the state program did not require wood, asphalt or concrete floors for shelter. "We wanted to come up with a balance of health and safety," one state official says, "while still moving towards OSHA standards."

Under the 1995 program, 35 growers operated licensed camps accommodating 2,000 workers. It was a tiny fraction of the housing that was needed, but state officials felt the program might eventually develop into a full-scale solution. The legislature offered $10 million in funding to expand the provisional facilities.

To farmworker advocates, however, Washington's provisional plan merely represented an effort to avoid federal interference without meeting federal law. They feared that the system wouldn't turn out to be provisional at all--it would represent a permanent ceiling, rather than a floor, on the quality of migrant worker housing. "It was arrogance by the industry to think they could avoid OSHA," says Guadalupe Gamboa, regional director of the United Farmworkers of America. "You don't provide housing by lowering standards."

And so, last year, the farmworkers and their activist allies chose to gamble. They threatened to file a lawsuit against OSHA if federal guidelines were not strictly enforced for the summer of 1999 in Washington State. That would mean declaring virtually all the provisional sites to be inadequate, and closing them. OSHA was persuaded. It agreed that the provisional program had, in fact, turned into a lowering of standards, and declared that the state guidelines were not acceptable on any basis--even as a part of a long-term plan to fix the problem. State health officials were left to enforce the federal standards, shutting down the provisional camps they had previously licensed. "To both the growers and workers it was crazy," Gardipee says. "They were told to leave and go heaven knows where." The governor's office called OSHA's move "a poorly thought-out political blunder."

But the state responded remarkably quickly. Besides authorizing the 10-year, $40 million commitment, the legislature set up a permanent housing facility on an experimental basis for 150 people in Mattawa, in cherry-growing central Washington. It vowed to scrutinize the Mattawa project closely for lessons on future projects. In addition, agreement was reached to create a new task force including the governor's office, the state Health Department, OSHA and advocacy groups to determine future housing guidelines together.

The task force has been meeting in recent weeks to decide whether to accept the governor's proposal to provide between 200 and 300 six- person tents this summer, with 7-foot ceilings and 50 square feet of space per worker. Rich Nafziger, the governor's spokesman on migrant worker housing, says that he doesn't expect any opposition from OSHA and the rules will most likely take effect May 1. The state will provide the tents to the growers at cost, out of funding separate from the pool of permanent housing funds.

The real question, though, is how far even $40 million over 10 years will go toward finding a permanent solution to a seemingly eternal dilemma. Some critics say that, when fully implemented, Washington State's program is unlikely to house more than 10,000 of the 65,000 migrants.

And whatever the new law may accomplish in the long run, this summer is likely to be as troublesome as any recent one. Much of the land around orchards in Washington is public land, and workers will continue to camp on it, in clear violation of federal standards. OSHA and the state can try to police these camps, but only at the risk of alienating both the growers and the workers themselves. "The key is how to maximize safety and sanitary conditions," says Nafziger. "The higher you set standards, the fewer growers will participate. When the standards are too low, conditions are unsafe. The problem is huge."

Special Projects