By: Kara Moberg & Rubén Martinez, Ph.D.

It has long been established in Michigan that agricultural labor camp occupants, their guests, and representatives of assistance organizations have the right to enter and leave agricultural labor camps without the permission or knowledge of the labor camp owner or operator. The issue was first addressed in Michigan by the Attorney General, Frank Kelley, in April, 1971 in General Opinion No. 4727 in which he stated that “The rights of migrant agricultural workers and their visitors to assemble and associate with each other on the premises of a state licensed agricultural labor camp, as well as their rights of freedom of religion, speech, and the press, are guaranteed by the First and Four­teenth Amendments to the United States Constitution” (p. 38).

Shortly thereafter, on September 7, 1971, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan, Southern Division, issued the landmark decision, Folgueras et al v. Hassle et al (331 F. Supp. 615, W. D. Mich. 1971), which upheld the right of free access by migrant laborers, their guests, and outreach workers to labor camps. Since then, the Folgueras principles of free access have been followed by courts in other states and continue to provide legal precedent regarding labor housing access rights. Yet, the mistaken belief that service providers must receive permission from growers before conducting outreach in Michigan camps remains and, as a result, continues to perpetuate the systemic racism and power imbalance inherent within the agricultural industry in this country.

On July 23, 1969, Violadelle Valdez and Donald Folgueras went to one of the migrant camps owned by Joseph Hassle at the invitation of one of the residents who needed help with sick children. Valdez and Folgueras were college students working as “student coordinators” that summer for United Migrants for Opportunity, Inc. (UMOI), an organization which provided social services and college scholarships to farmworkers and their families. On that day, Hassle physically assaulted Folgueras and held the two students on the ground for two hours at the point of a shotgun. When Sheriff’s deputies arrived, they gave the students an opportunity to leave and then arrested them for trespassing. The plaintiffs in the case included the two students and the farmworkers who had requested assistance from UMOI. They sought a judgement affirming their right to access the camps as well as compensatory damages. With regard to access, the Court held that the farmworkers were tenants in the camps and were entitled to have guests and service agency representatives. During 1970, before the Court’s ruling in 1971, Hassle continued to deny access to visitors and assaulted others seeking ingress to his camps.

Agricultural labor camps are used by agricultural operations to house the estimated 49,135 farmworkers who perform the labor-intensive and seasonal work in the Michigan food and agricultural industry, which contributes $104.7 billion annually to the state’s economy. Farmworkers, however, see very little of that revenue. The 2021 National Agricultural Workers Survey report by JBS International for the years 2017-2018 indicated that the mean and median for a farmworkers’ total family income ranged between $25,000 to $29,999 and that 21% of farmworkers had a family income below the federal poverty level. According to that report, 4% reported less than $20,000 for the prior year, 28% reported income of $20,000 to $29,999, and 44% reported $30,000 or more.

The Michigan Migrant and Seasonal Farmworker Enumeration Profiles Study, 2013 by the Michigan Interagency Migrant Services Committee estimated that of the estimated 49,135 workers who perform seasonal agricultural labor in Michigan, 32,337 are “migratory laborers,” meaning the person has moved for the purpose of agricultural employment in Michigan. It is estimated that 29,227 household members accompany migratory laborers annually to Michigan.  In other words, there are estimated to be around 61,564 individuals in farmworker households who need housing during the Michigan agricultural harvest.

According to the 2020 Migrant Labor Housing Annual Report by Michigan’s Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, reduced income opportunities, the seasonality of farm work, the tourism industry in Michigan that coincides with Michigan’s agricultural season, and numerous other factors, make it nearly impossible for migratory farmworkers to find affordable housing in Michigan aside from employer-owned and employer-provided housing. According to that report, in 2020, there were 830 agricultural labor camps licensed in Michigan to house only 26,734 agricultural workers and their family members, leaving a deficit of 35,190. Therefore, it is likely that several migrant and seasonal farmworkers are being housed in employer-provided housing that has not been licensed by the State as an agricultural labor camp.

Agricultural labor camps often offer substandard housing conditions, including structural defects, overcrowding, close proximity to pesticides, and poor sanitation. Even camps that are licensed by the State allow for some poor conditions to exist since federal, state, and local regulations are outdated and provide minimum legal standards. U.S. laws exclude farmworkers from housing protections and workplace protections. These exclusions are grounded in the racist origins of agricultural labor in the United States, beginning with slavery, and continue into the present to have a racially discriminatory impact. The near-total control that some agricultural employers exert over farmworkers who live in their labor camps has been likened by many to modern-day slavery.

It is for these reasons that camp access remains so critical. The COVID-19 pandemic clearly demonstrated the persistence of these inequalities and their devastating effects on farmworker communities. It also increased the need for services to be provided to workers in the agricultural labor camps and highlighted the barriers for doing so. As the pandemic got underway, in 2020, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer issued EO 2020-111: Protecting the Food Supply and Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Workers from the effects of COVID-19 which outlined a set of protective practices to keep farmworkers safe. Due to misinterpretations, the State of Michigan issued a FAQ to reaffirm that the Order did not abrogate the Court’s decision in Folgueras v. Hassle, which held that access to migrant labor camps could not be denied to visitors and assistance group representatives seeking to communicate with workers. As such, neither COVID-19 nor the laws put in place to protect employees from COVID-19 prevent service providers from accessing workers at the migrant labor camps.