Housing, OSHA, Regulations & Compliance, Uncategorized

Advocates: Many Farmworkers Living In Poor Conditions

From News.OPB.org, Kristian Foden-Vencil, 23 Jun 2011.


Oregon has about eight inspectors to check the conditions at farmworker camps.Kristian Foden-Vencil  OPB

Oregon has about eight inspectors to check the conditions at farmworker camps.Kristian Foden-Vencil OPB

You may not have noticed, but Oregon’s in the middle of a big migration.Thousands of people from California and Mexico are converging on the state to pick strawberries.After that, they’ll work on the blueberry harvest, then cucumbers, cherries and by the fall it’s pears.They live for as long as a couple of months in rudimentary housing provided by farmers. Oregon’s Occupational Safety and Health Division has strict rules about what has to be provided at those worker camps.But farmworker rights groups estimate there may be up to two hundred camps that aren’t registered with the state, and they say conditions at some are poor.Juana Santiago is from Oaxaca, Mexico. She’s 22-years-old, and has worked picking fruit on Oregon’s farms for the last four years.Today, she’s showing a small group around the “Larry Road Camp” for the Farmworker Housing Development Corporation.

That’s a non-profit group that raises money to build high-quality farmworker housing. Santiago used to live at this camp, just a mile away from the glitzy wares of the Woodburn Outlet Stores along Interstate 5.

Jaime Arredondo of the Farmworker Housing Development Corporation explained, “She was telling us in the car that coming back here, we asked her if she was nervous. She said, ‘No I’m not nervous.’ So I asked, ‘How do you feel?’ and she said, ‘I’m not happy and I’m not sad either but I am kind of sad in a way because some of the things that they promised that they were going to fix, still haven’t been fixed.'”

Registered camps must follow strict guidelines by OSHA. Kristian Foden-Vencil OPB

Registered camps must follow strict guidelines by OSHA. Kristian Foden-Vencil OPB

Arrendondo, translating for Santiago, further explained: “Like the doors, and the kitchen. People were going to have their own kitchen in their rooms and that hasn’t happened yet. They’re going to paint it and that hasn’t happened yet. And it hasn’t changed much,” he said.

About 120 people live at the camp. It’s registered with the state and each worker pays about $70 a month for the rent. The showers, sinks and toilets are outside and there’s a communal kitchen. One family showed a small room with four bunk beds, several children and a baby. A single florescent light illuminates the space and there’s a TV and a chest of drawers. Jim Moorefield, the director of the Willamette Neighborhood Housing Services in Corvallis, joined the tour.

Housing shown to reporters on a recent tour is a sharp contrast to the camps of the past.Kristian Foden-Vencil OPB

Housing shown to reporters on a recent tour is a sharp contrast to the camps of the past.Kristian Foden-Vencil OPB

“I think the conditions we saw today is something that everybody should see. Most people don’t know, when they drive down a rural road, that some of the buildings they’re driving buy, people live in. They don’t look like places that people live in. They look like places that people abandoned a long time ago. When in fact, these are people’s homes,” Moorefield said.

The camp belongs to E & S Farms Incorporated. Owner Stan Danskey, didn’t want to talk on tape but says the accommodation is temporary and it’s not meant to be luxurious. In fact, he says, the government doesn’t want apartment complexes on farms — so the housing is designed to be turned into barns one day. He says new screen doors are on order, but he never promised to put kitchens in each room. He says he also recently painted and updated the communal kitchen — improvements that Juana Santiago did notice.

Oregon OSHA is responsible for overseeing farm worker housing. The agency says there are about 300 camps like “Larry Road” that are registered with the state.

If each camp averages about 100 workers, that would mean there’s space for about 30,000 people.

But Arredondo estimates that Oregon has about 50,000 migrant workers.

And Arrendondo says that means there could be as many as 200 unregistered camps scattered around the state. And says Arredondo, many are not fit to live in.

“People don’t know that these conditions are still existing.”

OSHA says farmers could be fined $7,000 for violations of camp guidelines.Kristian Foden-Vencil OPB

OSHA says farmers could be fined $7,000 for violations of camp guidelines.Kristian Foden-Vencil OPB

Melanie Mesaros of Oregon OSHA says the estimate that there are 200 unregistered camps is too high. She says a camp doesn’t have to be registered if there are less than six people living there, or if residents are all from the same family. She also says many migrants stay with extended family, or in their cars, in barns and under bridges.

Still, she says, there are strict rules about what is required at farm worker camps.

“They have to provide an adequate supply of hot and cold water. There’s specifications for how much pressure needs to be available. They need to have some sort of buildings for common use, like bathing, hand washing, laundry and toilets,” she said.

Mesaros says Oregon OSHA has eight staff members who check the camps. They also check on about a half dozen complaints a year. And if a staff member goes to a farm’s packing plant for example, and notices unregistered housing, a farmer can be fined up to $7,000 dollars.

Meseros says a list of all registered farm worker housing can be found on OSHA’s website.

“Anybody who is aware of a camp that’s not registered, we would certainly want to hear about it. And they could call us and let us know. I mean that’s something that we do struggle with at times.”

Advocates say there could as many as 200 unregistered camps, but the state disagrees. Kristian Foden-Vencil / OPB

Advocates say there could as many as 200 unregistered camps, but the state disagrees. Kristian Foden-Vencil OPB

Mesaros and others say the quality of farm worker housing has improved over the last 20 years. Ken Bailey is a part owner of the Orchard View Farms in The Dalles. It has 2,100 acres of cherries around the mid-Columbia area. It also has three camps, all registered. Each one houses about 100 people. Bailey says he needs labor so much, he doesn’t charge rent. And he says he has an economic incentive to make sure that the workers want to stay on his farm.

“It’s not high grade-housing, but it’s not low-grade housing either. It’s pretty basic. Over the years we’ve developed into providing housing that has all functions that the family needs inside the housing, showers, toilets, beds, kitchen facilities and all that in our particular housing. Not all farms are that way but we have a long season and so we try to provide a little better housing. If a person is living in something for two or three weeks is one thing. But it you get up to six or eight weeks it’s better to have more of the facilities available.”

He says he’s required to put in heating, but during his picking time it was air conditioning that workers wanted. So Bailey put that in a few years ago.

Back in Woodburn, the Farmworker Housing Development Corporation gives a tour of another set of houses, that they say they’ve built to ensure workers have decent, low-cost places to live that are close to town. Arredondo, says that proximity to a town allows workers to buy food easily, to put their kids in school and generally improves their lives.

“Obviously there’s a stable home and an affordable home. But we have these community centers that are part of the housing complex where we operate a variety of education programs, after school programs, summer programs, literacy programs, ESL programs, right. We know that maybe a lot of the parents will remain in farm work. But we know that the kids won’t.”

Aldo Solano lives in this newly-renovated complex. He moved to the US from Mexico when he was eight. His parents work at the Willamette Egg Farms, but he says, he’s going to college.

“I’m going to go to Chemeketa. I’m going to start this fall. And go there for two years because I have a scholarship there. But I’m planning on transferring to PSU,” Solano said.

Oregon OSHA: List of registered camps: http://www4.cbs.state.or.us/ex/imd/reports/rpt/index.cfm?ProgID=ALH8004

Source: News.OPB.org, “Advocates: Many Farmworkers Living In Poor Conditions” by Kristian Foden-Vencil, 23 Jun 2011.

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