LISTEN: “Dehumanizing” conditions for Michigan farmworkers

Dr. Lisbeth Iglesias-Ríos joins the Agents of Change in Environmental Justice podcast to discuss her recent research on the dehumanizing work conditions for migrant farmworkers in Michigan and what we can do to address these injustices.


Iglesias-Ríos, a research investigator at the department of epidemiology in the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health and co-investigator of the Michigan Farmworker Project, also discusses how a lack of health care and other social resources impact the farmworkers, as well as policies that would help to mitigate some of these workplace harms.

The Agents of Change in Environmental Justice podcast is a biweekly podcast featuring the stories and big ideas from past and present fellows, as well as others in the field. You can see all of the past episodes here.

Listen below to our discussion with Iglesias-Ríos, and subscribe to the podcast at iTunes or Spotify. You can find our previous discussion with Iglesias-Ríos here.

Editor’s note: Support for Iglesias-Ríos’ research was provided by grant P30ES017885 from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, National Institutes of Health. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.

Transcript 

Brian Bienkowski

Hello and welcome back to the Agents of Change in Environmental Justice podcast, a partnership between Environmental Health News and Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. I’m your host, Brian Bienkowski, editor at Agents of Change and the senior editor at Environmental Health News. Folks, as we slowly inch towards spring it is a good time to reflect on where our food comes from. That voice you heard at the top was Dr. Lisbeth Iglesias-Ríos, a research investigator at the Department of Epidemiology at University of Michigan School of Public Health. She is also the co-investigator of the Michigan Farm Worker project, a community-based project that assesses the working and living conditions of migrant and seasonal farmworkers in the state of Michigan. You may remember me speaking with Lisbeth last year about her work examining the work and health conditions for Michigan Farm Workers. She has spent more time in the field since then, talking to these farm workers. And today she brings up a new study that outlines these conversations about the often dehumanizing conditions that these farm workers live and work in. To learn more after the interview search for the Michigan Farm Worker Project at the University of Michigan. Enjoy. All right, I am once again joined by Dr. Lisbeth Iglesias-Ros Lizbeth. It is so lovely to see you.

Lisbeth Iglesias-Ríos

Good to see you, Brian.

Brian Bienkowski

And where are you today?

Lisbeth Iglesias-Ríos

I’m in Ann Arbor.

Brian Bienkowski

Ann Arbor, Michigan – same as last time. And I am about four and a half hours northeast. So again, it is lovely to see you again. And thank you so much for being here. And last time we talked about a lot of your work with the Michigan Farm Worker project, which is near and dear to your heart and mind, given where I’m at. And since last time we talked, you published a new paper. So can you remind readers and listeners what the Michigan Farm Worker project is and what did you and colleagues do in this new study?

Lisbeth Iglesias-Ríos

Yeah, the Michigan Farm Worker project is a project that Dr. Handal and I have developed in 2019. And we are both epidemiologists at the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan. And you know, when I was doing my dissertation, I analyzed the mental health patterns of violence in individuals traffic in various labor sectors, including agriculture. And I got very interested in the situation of farm workers in Michigan. I went to a conference in Michigan on human trafficking and attended a presentation from the attorney Diana Marín on labor trafficking of young workers in Michigan. And I connected with her and we have both interests and see the need to study this issue in Michigan. So I started to reach out to other organizations and eventually in a very organic way we develop the Michigan Farm Worker project with the partnership and collaboration of the Office of Migrant Affairs that is under the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. And we also collaborate with two nonprofit legal service organizations working with foreign workers in this day. One of these organizations is Farmworkers Legal Services and also the Michigan Immigrants Rights Centers. So I think the Michigan Farm Worker Project basically emerge from these common vision that there was a need to develop programs, policies and interventions to address the working and living conditions of our workers in Michigan. And I will research approaches guided by community-based participatory principles, meaning that we collaborate with our community partners in the research process. So it’s not the type of research that extracts knowledge and never gets back to the community. Our goal is to build knowledge with the community. And that is the way this project started. Yes, in this study, it was actually these are the interviews from the first story. We collect data on 35 female and male farm workers and 21 stakeholders from workers who work in the field, but also packing plants, houses so they do both ships like morning they work in the field, nights, in the packing plant. The study was conducted between September and November in 2019. The stakeholders were individuals, also females and males, that have current or former experience working directly with farmworkers in Michigan. So I interviewed people and I interviewed individuals working in sectors of healthcare, education, legal services, social services. And there was one community leader. And and so the paper that we’re gonna talk today is, is about the findings of these interviews.

Brian Bienkowski

And real quick before we get to that study, I just want to kind of give a lay of the land to people who aren’t from here. I think when people think of migrant farm labor, they also they often automatically go to the Central Valley of California and some of these hotspot agricultural areas. So in Michigan, what kind of crops, what is kind of the lay of the land in terms of this farm worker labor that you’re looking into?

Lisbeth Iglesias-Ríos

Yeah, that’s a good point. So apparently, Michigan has the second is the second after California in crop diversity, with more than 300 commodities. So we, Michigan, collects, crops from apples, the classic blueberries, all the way to pickles, pumpkins, chiles, everything that you can imagine. So yeah, it’s very diverse. And it’s all year-round. And and one point that I want to make is that we haven’t account for dairy farmers. These are also very important for Michigan. And this is a group of workers very marginalized. And very little has been done in knowing the situation of these workers.

Brian Bienkowski

So you looked into kind of many aspects of what they do and listen to their stories. But there was one word that stuck out to me, and it was dehumanizing. And that’s that word was in your study. And that came up in these interviews. So what did workers tell you in these interviews, that was evidence of dehumanizing work practices?

Lisbeth Iglesias-Ríos

So the dehumanizing treatment, as shown in the results was at many levels. From an excessive work hours to the point that is that some workers really work seven days a week for more than 40 hours per week, in the sense that they have unpredictable schedules. And they’re basically at the disposition of the crew leader, or the grower when they are called to work. One female mom, farmworker mentioned how stressful was not able to know when they were going to work and have to leave her home and leave behind the food she was cooking, because she was being called to work. Dehumanizing because of the coercion and threats that workers receive from employers. For instance, if you complain, they will tell them “then I will call Immigration Enforcement and you will be deported” or for H2A workers, “you will be put in the blacklist and you will never be able to come back for work in the US.” Or the humanizing because employers create this fear and, and really a culture of silence on these workers. Dehumanizing because workers were not allowed to take breaks to go to the bathroom and suffer later from urinary infections. This was related to me from various workers, that were working in a packing plant in Michigan. Dehumanizing because the grower decides, for example, not to put portable bathrooms in the field at the beginning of the season, when they are fewer workers. And for example, females have to wear many pads to avoid bleeding or have to change the pads in the field. Dehumanizing because despite all the hard work, there is wage theaft. Because imagine that for once, for example, in the field, every time they deliver a bucket of cucumbers, they receive paper tickets that at the end of the day are counted for the payment. Well, the counts many times are not in favor of the worker because the ticket was lost or because the employer has the last word. Acrew leader and workers, for example, working in apple picking here in Michigan told me – and I saw them I was there – how dangerous was to set the ladder to get into the trees and and grab their apples. And with that they need to be very careful to avoid putting processing the apples or they receive warnings –either taking away working day so as a form to punish the worker or getting them fired. and dehumanizing because you see migrant farm workers coming from Florida or Texas with the fear of being caught out by the police because they may not even have a driver’s license. And then they arrived to Michigan with their little kids to work with a grower, and they have been working with this individual for more than 10 years. And the grower sends the crew leader to tell them that there is no work for them because this year the grower has hired H2A farm workers and his family and this family has to live in their car during winter because they spend all their money in the trip to come to Michigan, until they are able to find other job. So they, they value so, so little these people, that the employer was not even able to pick up the phone and inform them about not having a job. And dehumanizing also, because women cannot attend to their prenatal care or breastfeed their babies and I personally found children when I was visiting these places as little of six taking care of their younger siblings, living in a trailer alone with terrible conditions, while the parents were working the night shift at the packing plant. This was a pickle plant in Bamboran* Dehumanizing mainly because these workers are not recognized and valued as they should. Agriculture in Michigan is a billion-dollar industry for the economy of the state, yet they pay some of these workers by piece rate which exacerbate their work pace, and creates all sorts of problems for the workers, or the state, you know, cannot even provide proper housing for these workers. And they remain really under the shadows because despite these workers have been working in the state for 10 years, on average, they don’t even have the right for an identification, which also create problems when it comes to their access to housing and other services. Like just opening a bank account. I remember this worker that was putting all his money in the can of his employer. So dehumanizing appears at many levels.

Brian Bienkowski

So I want to talk about some of the kind of intersectional issues and problems here. So can you talk about the lack of health care and other social benefits and how this further harms workers who are experiencing this dehumanizing behavior at work?

Lisbeth Iglesias-Ríos

Yes. Not having reliable access to preventative services, like regular checkups, I think translates eventually, in these workers having, you know, all kinds of problems, dental problems, chronic diseases, we we we know that farm workers have a high prevalence of asthma, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, problems of reproductive health. Michigan will benefit with improving rural medical care. And I’m going to give you an example. The University of Michigan runs every summer clinics with the students and residents. They see, they go to the fields and to the different working sites. And they see – I’ve been there I’ve been volunteering in these clinics, for the worker, not the university– they see the workers only one time and that’s all. So who benefits from this? it’s good training for the students and residents. And it’s good that the university can say that they are providing the service. But is it good for the workers? some of the providers say “well is better than nothing.” I have some heavy anecdotes of those clinics being there. And for example, being there because I was there and the residents and students do not to speak in Spanish because most don’t, and they misunderstand the symptoms or give instructions to the worker to do a stretch it stretches, right for pain in their back. I mean, they don’t without understanding the reality, the situation of these workers, kind of ridiculous to me. The workers are constantly exposed to chemicals in the fields, and there is more and more research of the dangers of chemicals on health. Yeah, and we don’t have research on chemical exposure from workers in Michigan that I’m aware of. Then the policy approach in the US is the chemical is innocent until proven guilty, meaning that there will be an infinite amount of obstacles to regulate one chemical. The EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency, has found that the majority of chemicals in use today haven’t been sufficiently examined for human health toxicity or environmental exposure. So how is that possible? When the chemical industry makes millions and millions of dollars while EPA is underfunded, and at the mercy of politicians. In terms of social benefits, I think many workers, because of their legal status, they may not qualify for Social Services like access to safety net programs, including food stamps, Medicaid, educational opportunities. Michigan, for example, has some training and courses for foreign workers, but you need to be documented to qualify. I remember trying to connect, you know, one of the workers that wanted to finish his GED. Brilliant individual, but he didn’t have documents and that particular agency was unable to help him. The issue of foreign workers I think is really beyond healthcare is a much more complex and structural issue. issue that has historical roots on plantations, slavery, the occupational segregation of workers of color, this hate-love relationship of the US with Latin American countries of “I hate you, and we will build the wall. But we need you to work in our fields. We need you to work in our factories in our hotels.” So these double standard and decadence of neoliberal policies that haven’t been, they haven’t been beneficial for the most disadvantaged individuals and have basically eliminated important social programs that are positive for population health.

Brian Bienkowski

And I think it’s it’s obvious. Some of these short term health impacts I heard back – fractured family, finances in disarray. But were you able to kind of tease out some of the longer term effects for workers and families who suffer from this precarious employment? What does it look when you zoom out?

Lisbeth Iglesias-Ríos

Yeah, I think precarious employment it’s a key social determinants of health that widen social, economic, racial and ethnic gender inequalities in America. Precarious work conditions can evolve into labor exploitation. And in very vulnerable populations, like farm workers, this can even end in extreme forms of exploitation like labor trafficking, because the state of Michigan has these cases of labor trafficking with these workers. I think this question really comes back to the issue of the dehumanization of these workers. So the Ballwin individuals and taking away fundamental human and labor rights is dangerous for Michigan, and for our society, because it is ultimately a way or can be used to justify xenophobia, racism, discrimination and conflicts. So I think a healthy workforce is not just about the physical wellbeing of an individual, but is one that protects and enables the integration of its workforce into our social fabric, regardless of their race, regardless of their ethnicity, economic position, or the nationality of the workers.

Brian Bienkowski

And I don’t like to end on a bleak note, and a lot of this sounds very, like an uphill battle to get to a place where this isn’t happening. I’m wondering if you’re seeing any policies in Michigan or otherwise, that are beginning to tackle this problem? And if not, what kind of policy changes are you advocating for?

Lisbeth Iglesias-Ríos

Yeah. Well, I will start by saying that I think that stronger and healthier societies are the ones that sustain and embrace workers’ rights and decent work. Because these can be translated in high labor standards to ensure the protections and safety of the workers, supporting the regularization of the workers, providing a legal path to residency and citizenship. Support labor organizing farm workers in Michigan doesn’t have representation. And basically, they don’t have a voice. I think in Michigan, state agencies in charge of housing and work inspections need to change the way they are serving these workers. And our biggest issue is that they are underfunded and understaffed. To me, there’s an important policy change, he doesn’t have anyone to have agencies that don’t have the capacity to inform enforce the policies or regulations for the safety and health of the workers. I think the state should make an effort to invest on research for these workers. The last census of farm workers or what they call enumeration, a study of farm workers in Michigan, was in 2013. So it has been more than 10 years, that Michigan has not invest in just knowing how many workers are in the state. And I think operating programs under the unknown, and keeping the invisibility of these workers, as you mentioned, is not good policy. The state should make investments on research on these workers. California and North Carolina, Washington state have done extensive research with farm workers, Michigan is behind. And one of the big issues is funding to do this type of research and without good data with you cannot guide policy changes. I think it’s state and federal agencies need to be congruent with the reality of these workers. We need enforcement and policies and regulations, adequate and well trained personnel in these agencies and funding so that they can do their job. I would like to see more action at the state level on the issues we found and we reported in our study. Since the publication of the study, which was last year, they only at the state level invite us to testify at the Hispanic Latino Commission. They say thank you, and they never reached out to us. So I wonder, are they paying attention to these issues? Do the people in positions of power care that workers in Michigan are exploited to the point of feeling dehumanized? I would like to see a more transparent system of employers with labor violations and improve the whole reporting system protecting the workers instead of going to lengthy litigation that is draining for the workers, and the resources for other agencies working on legal issues. At the community level, I would like people to know that these precarious and exploitative work conditions are in our backyard. And a way to support these workers can be through advocacy, involvement of concerned citizens in hearings at the state level that are public –just last night, I was in the housing hearing, get involved with organizations by providing funding for them. For example, Farmworker Legal Services, this nonprofit, and Michigan Immigrant Rights Centers, which is another nonprofit, are excellent organizations, but they are really understaffed, and underfunded. If organizations also receive federal funds, they shouldn’t be put restrictions of who these organizations can serve, given the populations they are working with, right? the reality is that many of them are undocumented. And I think at the personal level, we need to work with our own prejudices and biases about these workers. The food that we enjoy comes with a high cost for these workers in terms of safety and their health.

Brian Bienkowski

I appreciate all of that. And I would add on your last point to just get informed about where your food comes from. If you’re if you’re eating a $1 kiwi, and you live where I do on the Canadian border, it got there somehow. Someone picked that and it’s gone through a long travel and maybe the 99 cent milk that came from the dairy next door isn’t the smiling farmer on the tractor that you see on the commercial, but it’s workers who are not being treated very, very well. So I think it’s important to just reestablish our connection with our food and demand and demand better. So Lisbeth before we get you out of here, what are some of the next steps in this research for you?

Lisbeth Iglesias-Ríos

The next steps, personally, is to overcome the struggles of finding funding to continue with this important work. There’s a lot of money provided for sports in Michigan and other things in our state. But how is that we ignore these issues and these goals for the state and also academic institutions in Michigan. Ironically, in November of last year, the University of Michigan awardedOur Mr. Lucas Benitez with a Wallenberg Medal. This award is provided to “outstanding humanitarians whose actions on behalf of the oppressed reflect the commitment and sacrifice of Raoul Wallenberg” –He was a Swedish diplomat rescued 10s of 1000s of jews in Budapest during the closing months of World War Two. So Lucas Benitez is a former farm worker, and one of the founders of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida advocating for fair food trade, an anti-slavery program for farmworkers. And he received the medal here in Michigan. And I found very ironic that the university gave this award to a farm worker and even more shocking is that some of the people involved in this award didn’t even have that we have the Michigan Farm Worker project. They didn’t even know the situation of farmworkers in Michigan. And I haven’t heard anybody approached to me about our project. Beyond that, I’m currently working in looking at heat as a chronic occupational exposure for farm workers, meaning that how precarious work drag this chronic occupational exposure of heat that is dangerous for farm workers and particularly with issues for example, like cardiovascular disease.

Brian Bienkowski

Well, Lisbeth thank you so much for for your time today. Thank you so much for this work. I hope everyone as we at least us here we were speaking before the podcast, we are having such an unseasonable winter, Spring will be here before you know it and people will be back out in the fields. So think about where your food comes from. Check out the Michigan Farm Worker Project and Lisbeth we hope to have you on again in the future.

Lisbeth Iglesias-Ríos

Thank you so much, Brian.

Brian Bienkowski

That’s all for this week. folks. I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Lisbeth. If you enjoyed this podcast, visit agentsofchangeinej.org and while you’re there, click the donate button to support us or sign up for our free monthly newsletter. Or better yet, just do both. You can also find us on X and Instagram and please follow us on Spotify or iTunes. Give us a rating subscribe and never miss out on an episode.