The other crisis in Maryland’s seafood industry

This week, The Sun reported on rumors that the Trump administration has plans to grant an additional 15,000 H-2B visas to workers abroad in order to address labor shortages, including those in Maryland’s seafood industry. Yet, our seafood industry has another long-standing and buried crisis to overcome: systemic labor abuses of H-2B workers.

While guest-worker programs have played an important role in supporting communities on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border by providing job opportunities and sustaining businesses, they are also rife with abuses. Employers are begging for more migrant workers, and policymakers appear ready to comply. Rather than expanding the current programs, however, policymakers should advance labor migration policies that respect all families and communities — an alternative model with strong worker protections, increased transparency and adequate government oversight.

The Sun’s coverage of Maryland’s seafood industry illustrates the devastating effect that H-2B lottery system can have on communities, but it misses the point when it describes this visa program as a proven economic model without considering its systemic flaws. As the founder and executive director of Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, Inc. (CDM), I have spoken with thousands of workers and documented abuse in guest-worker programs for the past 12 years.

Like workers in other industries including carnivals and landscaping, many migrant worker women hired to pick crab meat on Maryland’s Eastern Shore under the H-2B program are vulnerable to abuses from the moment they are recruited in their communities, facing discrimination and fraud at the hands of unscrupulous labor contractors. When they arrive at their workplaces in the U.S., some workers find intolerable housing conditions and harassment. Once they return home, they must decide whether to report abuse and risk not being hired for the next season. Even if they choose to take legal action, they will face barriers to justice as many legal services organizations are prohibited from representing H-2B workers.

Because of our strong ties with communities in Mexico, home to many of Maryland’s seafood workers, CDM has followed the journey of women who spend months on Hooper’s Island in order to provide for their families back home. Their stories informed our 2009 report Picked Apart: The Hidden Struggles Of Migrant Worker Women In The Maryland Crab Industry.

Women were charged exorbitant recruitment fees and channeled to positions that paid less than those of their male counterparts. They weren’t offered work for the amount of hours they were promised during recruitment, and they lived in deplorable housing. They would suffer from cuts on their hands that at times would escalate to skin infections, blistering and lesions. Without access to legal services or protections against retaliation, migrant worker women were discouraged from reporting labor violations.

Since the launch of Picked Apart, we have mobilized allies and migrant worker leaders to advocate for strong labor protections in the program. Workers from San Luis Potosi and Hidalgo have reported that recruiters have stopped charging fees; but other workers haven’t been so lucky and other abuses prevail. Their financial dependence on these jobs is precisely what makes them so vulnerable to these violations.

Abuse isn’t exclusive to the seafood industry or the Eastern Shore. Guest-worker programs allow for recruiters and employers to take advantage of the system in order to mistreat workers across industries and markets — from farmworkers in Carroll County under the H-2A visa program to J-1 hotel staffers in Ocean City.

To be sure, employers' first priority is to subsist. However, the industry is fueled by workers recruited under flawed immigration policies that should be overhauled, not expanded. To see the crisis of our seafood industry merely as a labor shortage is to overlook the malice — and irony — of our government’s immigration agenda.

The Trump administration is trying to strip work authorization from over a million recipients of Temporary Protected Status (TPS), those granted a permit after surviving natural disasters in places like Honduras, Haiti and Nepal, and Deferred Action Childhood Arrivals. At the same time, it is proposing to expand flawed guest-worker programs without any plans to strengthen worker protections. These policies are anti-immigrant and anti-worker.

While the nation turns its eyes to Maryland’s Eastern Shore as it struggles to survive, the seafood industry should be looking within and assessing its willingness to subsist at the expense of those who sustain it. Our policymakers should be focusing on long-term and comprehensive immigration solutions that respect everyone’s rights and dignity.

Rachel Micah-Jones (rachel@cdmigrante.org) is the founder and executive director of Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, Inc. and the chair of the International Labor Recruitment Working Group. She lives in Baltimore.

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