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Two Michigan farms accused of treating workers inhumanely

The U.S. Department of Labor has filed complaints against two Michigan farms for treating migrant workers inhumanely.

The department says migrant housing at Berrybrook Farms in Dowagiac was infested with rodents and insects, and workers didn't have access to refrigerators or hot running water.

Darryl Howes farms in Copemish  is accused of underpaying workers and providing unsanitary housing and toilets.

Calls to both companies were not returned.

Theresa Hendricks is Director of Migrant Legal Aid. She says, unfortunately, this kind of poor treatment of migrant workers isn't rare.

"The workers are looked at pretty much like property or commodities at a farm where the conditions are this bad," she says flatly.

Hendricks says Michigan fruit and vegetable farms have a long-standing tradition of employing families, rather than single adults.

That means children are being exposed to abuse, too.

"And it's sad to see children living in conditions that are bad, and sad to see them working for sometimes as low as a couple dollars an hour, after you calculate how long they've been out in the fields," says Hendricks. 

Hendricks says many of the farms have been cited over and over.

She says the Department of Labor can seize produce from such places, but that kind of action requires a large commitment of time, staff and resources, so it's not often done.

Michigan also has inspectors for farms that employ migrant workers.  Recently, the state restored $400,000 to the budget for such inspectors.  Hendricks thinks that's good - but even more funding would be better.

Migrant Legal Aid has a "Good Grower Award" to try to recognize farms that treat their workers right.

Blueberry Heritage Farms of Grand Rapids Township won the award last year.

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.