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Start Garden: Investing in the perpetuation of Migrant Farmworker exploitation

March 21, 2019

Last week, the DeVos-created org Start Garden, posted a story from Crain’s Detroit Business, about two guys who received funding from Start Garden’s 5×5 event.

The article tells the story about two siblings who were migrant workers with their parents in various parts of the country, who eventually made their way to Michigan. Michigan has one of the largest migrant worker populations in the country.

The Paredes brothers won $5,000 from the 5×5 event to help support their new project called AgHelp. The brothers have also won other funding sources, notably from the American Farm Bureau Federation, which is the largest agribusiness organization in the country.

The Crain’s Detroit Business article also stated:

Michigan relies on more than 94,000 migrant farm workers to hand-harvest more than 40 different crops, Feliciano said. It’s typical for the state’s farmers to lose millions in unharvested crops because of a shortage of workers, or to have to mow millions of pounds of asparagus that are rotting in the field.

Heeren Brothers of Comstock Park, near Grand Rapids, turned to AgHelp to ease some of those challenges. Heeren has a large apple orchard, a packing facility that serves apple growers from around the state, a produce distribution operation and a warehouse in Iowa.

So here is the thing. While this story might seem like a feel good story, it omits a great deal about the realities of those who work as migrant farmworkers. As was mentioned above, the agribusiness sector is constantly looking for migrant farmworkers to do the hard labor of harvesting their crops. US immigration policy, which is never mentioned in the Crain’s Detroit Business article, makes it increasingly difficult for undocumented immigrants (which make up a large portion of migrant farmworkers) to work in the agribusiness sector, since Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) has created a climate of fear within the undocumented community.

In addition, there is nothing said about the wages and living conditions of migrant farmworkers, which is one of the lowest paying jobs in the country. In fact, farms that employ migrant farmworkers don’t have to pay them minimum wages, since migrant farm work was never included in the federal minimum wage guidelines. Migrant farmworkers often get cheated on their wages and there is not much they can do, unless they are unionized.

The United Farm Workers and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee  are two of the largest migrant worker unions in the country. These migrant worker unions began organizing because farmworkers were underpaid, worked in dangerous conditions and lived in substandard housing, often on the farms they worked on. What each of these migrant farmworker unions will tell you is that unless there is a union to represent the migrant farmworker interests, migrant farmworkers will be exploited. There are also groups like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which is a workers center that also fights for issues of migrant farmworker rights.

For example, according to a Michigan Civil Rights Commission report from 2010, the working and living conditions for migrant farmworkers was as bad, if not worse, then it was in the 1960s. (see photo on the right of the type of housing they are forced to live in.)

The Michigan Civil Rights Commission published an update in 2017, to see what improvements had been made since the 2010 report was issued. There were some improvement, but many urgent issues had not been addressed.

In contrast, the DeVos-created org Start Garden saw fit to invest money into AgHelp, which while it connects the agribusiness sector to migrant labor and social services, does nothing to challenge the deeply exploitative dynamic that exists within the agribusiness sector’s treatment of migrant farmworkers. However, there is no money to be made in unionizing migrant farmworkers, so it makes complete sense that Start Garden would financially invest in a project that perpetuates the exploitation of migrant farmworkers.



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