Crab Industry Workers Reveal Injustice of 'Legal' Migrant Labor

The increasingly incoherent national debate on immigration tends to
polarize between "legal" and "illegal." Those two terms, in addition to
being inherently arbitrary, mask the gradients of exploitation among
immigrants who are living and working legally in various sectors. A
study of women who came to the crab industry of Maryland's Eastern
Shore on H2-B visas--the supposedly lucky ones who entered the country
with the right papers--shows that abuse and oppression can fit
comfortably within the confines of immigration law.

The report, published by Centro de los Derechos del
and the International Human Rights Law Clinic at American
University's Washington College of Law, examine the women's experiences
both in their homeland and the U.S. and reveal what "legal" immigrant
labor looks like today:

All of the women interviewed earned were paid a piece
rate - typically $2.00 or $2.25 per pound of crabmeat picked. In order
to earn the federal minimum wage of $7.25 over the course of a 40-hour
workweek, a crab picker earning $2.00 per pound must pick 145 lbs of
crabmeat per week, which requires handling over 200 crabs daily. Women
who are unable to work with sufficient speed to earn the minimum wage
are either sent home, or -- in the case of more accommodating employers
-- are switched to an hourly wage rate.....

The majority of women interviewed - 54 percent - reported paycheck
deductions for knives, gloves, and other basic tools and safety
equipment. Many of the workers interviewed expressed confusion about
the purpose of different deductions. Few regularly received paystubs....

The women interviewed universally reported experiencing cuts on their
hands and arms while picking crabs with sharp knives. In some
instances, the cuts allow a dangerous seaborne bacterium, vibrio
vulnificus, to infect the skin, causing blistering or lesions. A
surprising number of women reported either having suffered from or
witnessing a co-worker suffer from the disease, which has a 50 percent
mortality rate once it enters the bloodstream....

Several women interviewed were frustrated that the men hired to wash
and clean the crabs earned more per hour and were given more hours than
the women picking crabmeat.

Still, this is preferable to their trying to eke out a living in
impoverished rural communities in Mexico. The cost of this opportunity
includes debts from heavy (and illegal) recruitment fees, as well as
the burden of being tied to one employer while they work in the U.S.

The findings, reflective of common practices in the two-tier guestworker system,
underscore the absurdity of the threshold that defines "legal" work,
and how easily employers can bend laws or ignore them altogether.

The report calls on state and federal authorities to reform labor
and workplace safety policies and to provide better social services to
migrants--the basic protections to which their work authorization
should entitle them.

Legalization and a path to citizenship are crucial components of
comprehensive immigration reform. But the government-sanctioned
exploitation in the crab industry shows why rights activists balk at the concept of guestworker programs. While
the "illegal" label dehumanizes immigrants, second-class legal status,
perhaps even more dangerously, may paper over injustice, as long as the
labor market takes inequality for granted.

Join Us: News for people demanding a better world

Common Dreams is powered by optimists who believe in the power of informed and engaged citizens to ignite and enact change to make the world a better place.

We're hundreds of thousands strong, but every single supporter makes the difference.

Your contribution supports this bold media model—free, independent, and dedicated to reporting the facts every day. Stand with us in the fight for economic equality, social justice, human rights, and a more sustainable future. As a people-powered nonprofit news outlet, we cover the issues the corporate media never will. Join with us today!

© 2023 ColorLines