Saturday, December 13, 2008

NJ’s Hidden Population Going South, For Now.

An outreach worker at a clinic remarked that you can live in Hammonton all your life, and not know just how many farms there are. They lie flat, hospital corner tucked into the NJ Pine Barrens, with neat rows of vegetables, blueberries, cranberries, turf, even. Down dirt paths, hidden in the middle of fields, or behind, or at the borders of infringing woods, or scattered amongst trucks and tractors, lie the farm camps.

They are quiet now, at the end of the season, and rapidly emptying, if not eerily abandoned already. Hammonton’s famous blueberry harvest wound down at the end of August and its cranberry and vegetable farms shut down for the winter in mid-October.

Homestead Farm, a vegetable farm, had its last work day on a Thursday and most its workers were heading south, to Florida, the following day.

“We go without knowing,” says Jose Huerfano Mejia Perez in Spanish, who still hasn’t found a contratista to take him.

The contratistas are independent or farm-sent contractors that find workers, transport them, and are often responsible for managing them at the farm, as well. In theory, they are supposed to be registered and certified in compliance with the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act, but in practice they are often no more than a man with a van bearing legitimate plates. It is the contratistas, too, that are responsible for checking the legality of workers’ papers and work status, but this technicality also falls by the wayside.

The wayside is littered with unmentionables.

At Homestead, for example, bathrooms consist of two porter potties for the 28 men living in the two trailers and little kitchen house, at time of first interview. Porter potties are often used in the field, where regulations also require such facilities, but, says a lawyer who heads a legal rights project for workers but did not want to be named, using them at camps is a way to sort of provide required facilities without spending the effort or money. Sometimes, porter potties are brought in instead of fixing broken extant bathrooms, a common problem for Hammonton’s off-grid septic systems. Jessica Culley, from the Farmworker Support Committee (CATA), explains that many farmers will wait to get an official incompliance notice from the County Health Department or Department of Labor inspectors before investing the effort to fix problems, even if they were already aware of them.

At Homestead, too, there is running water, but it is housed in a different building than the workers and the facilities are limited. The one washing machine is occupied non-stop and clothes always hang on the lines outside of the locked up kitchen. Pickers make about $60 per 10-hour work day, well bellow NJ’s minimum wage, which they should at least be getting, by law. Some men also complain about the food; they are served three meals per day and the kitchen kept under lock otherwise, but they say that it’s not enough to sustain them for the duration of the vigorous work day and the chef has a heavy hand when it comes to hot sauce, making meals inedible for some.

Celestino Martinez Lopez talks about his impending journey south with liminal fondness. Housing there is more decent, with only one or two people per room, and better sanitation facilities. “At this camp,” he also says of Homestead, “one works a lot. And they take out a good amount for insurance. For us, it’s not good, because they take out $50 for insurance and $50 for meals. That’s $100 taken out…We don’t know what [the insurance] does.” In Florida, he explains, about $20 is taken out a week, and if anything happens, that covers medicine, doctors, etc.

“Here, nothing, none of that. Here, if something happens, here, the boss doesn’t…doesn’t pay anything,” Lopez says.

Both the lawyer and Culley say that while familiar with the other mentioned problems, above, insurance payments is not one they’ve heard recently. More common, says Culley, is a group of workers signing up for paid insurance, like Aflac, without understanding what they are signing. I was not, however, able to reach Homestead’s owners for comment, and its workers left NJ. The constant migration makes any efforts to sort out problems that much harder.

Some New Jersey, and particularly Hammonton, farms have been recognized federally for their commendable treatment of their workers, which fact alone demonstrates that such sterling behavior is rather un-ubiquitary. Or its enforcement unassailable: while in the ‘70s investigative visitors to camps, like NJ assemblyman Byron Baer, were physically attacked and chased off camp grounds for peeping the squalor with ameliorating motives in mind, more recent problems with enforcement range from lack of funds for performing checks at the camps, to a lack of knowledge of their rights by the undocumented workers, with an adjoining fear of State authority, to the States’ conveniently unregulated discretion in cases of union organization attempts by migrant workers. But, Culley says, “unofficial data” reported to CATA by the Department of Labor states that the large majority of camps passed pre-season occupancy inspections. With such low standards (one toilet per every 20 workers, “twenty inches, extending from the floor to the ceiling or roof, between each bed or bunk or tier thereof,” etc.) it shouldn’t be too hard.

Homestead Farm, with its incredibly cramped but relatively neat trailers, its nice lawn, and its friendly, homey atmosphere is hardly the worst. There is a consensus by the men there that they’ve been treated well (suspicious to a journalist familiar with the sometimes oppressive politeness of Latin culture) and Mejia Perez remarks with a wistful tranquility that “there are no drunks here. Other camps have problems.”

Down the road, at Macrie Farm camp, the parking lot is full of vans and there is a group of men standing around out front on the Sunday evening I visit, Columbus Day weekend. They’re all in their early 20s, except Miguel Angel Ropoca Bravo, who is 42. He laughs shyly when asked if he acts as the de facto father figure of the house and admits that he serves as the designated liaison between the men at Macrie and the community clinic that serves the workers.

“This camp has good conditions,” Ropoca Bravo says from the edge of the activity. He says that he’s never been present for the State’s camp inspections, since they happen during the day while they are out in the field, but he knows that they’ve happened during this past season.

He is staying for the winter, along with some of the other men there. Macrie camp’s boarders do not work exclusively for Macrie Farm, rather, they are often recruited by other farms and nurseries in the area, especially during the slow, winter season.

“There are many people that work only for the seasons. They go to Florida, when the season ends, they come up here. They’re not stable people, so to say, that establish themselves here. The way I see it, it’s better to be stable. It’s only 8 hours [of work a day], but they’re secure. And if I go elsewhere, and don’t know anyone there, it’s hard to find work. Here, we don’t pay rent, don’t pay water, don’t pay light. And so, I feel calm,” says Ropoca Bravo.

Inside, beds stand in rows, without any attempts at even curtained partitions, in one large room. Some men are already sleeping, but the light is on and outside, they are playing music. Most of them are a little tipsy and the yard behind the house is littered with a voluminous display of beer cans, strewn around a trash can as if it had volcanically erupted, spewing aluminum cans. Around 8 pm, a white van pulls up and makes a few circles in the yard, beeping like a banshee in the quiet woods; men come out to purchase tacos, tamales, sodas.

With the end of the season looming like a precipice, most still don’t have solid plans. Excluding the few who stay, the most detailed answer given about what happens next is, simply, “Florida.” And despite Lopez’s border-line utopian description of Florida camps, all over the U.S., the biggest factor in the correctness of an agricultural work camp seems to depend on little more than the correctness of the proprietary farmer. There are so many stops along a migrant worker’s way that could lead him or her to somewhere relatively worse – an unfair contratista with unreasonable rates and meager contacts, a poorly kept camp and/or working conditions at the end of the trip, not enough work, problems with INS for undocumented workers, etc. – that staying in a bearable place, once found, almost seems preferable, even if less profitable and hardly ideal.

But Lopez, for whom this is the sixth year in the U.S., says, “Each year, if it’s not good here, you go to another place, over there.”

The grass is sometimes greener “over there.” And it needs cutting.

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