Migrant workers: 'They're really vulnerable'

About 15,000 to 30,000 migrant farmworkers come to South Carolina each year. The Sisters of Charity Foundation of S.C. took this image during visits to several farms made to research the workers' conditions. It declined to identify the farms.

Each summer, during the prime of South Carolina's growing season, several thousand migrant farmworkers flow through fields from the Upstate to the Lowcountry, often working dawn to dusk to cultivate, harvest and pack crops.

They are some of the state's least visible people, not just because they toil in rural areas, but also because of language barriers, the transient nature of their lives, and a growing fear that they are not welcome here.

The Sisters of Charity Foundation of South Carolina spent more than a year visiting several farms that grow peaches, strawberries, blackberries, grapes, tomatoes, peppers, watermelon, sweet corn, onions, collards, kale, turnips and other specialty crops.

Its team talked with several dozen farmworkers to learn more about the conditions and challenges facing them.

This week, it released a research brief that highlights five areas where it says change is needed to strengthen families: the broken labor system, dangerous working conditions, poverty-level wages, substandard housing, and challenges children face accessing school.

Researcher Stephanie Cooper-Lewter said the brief is mostly designed to raise awareness and compassion for these workers -and to let average people know how they can help.

"When you talk with them, they're scared because they want to work," she said of the workers.

"They're here because they may have family members who they want to send money back home for. They're, in a sense, really vulnerable. If there's a concern, it's hard to speak up. Who do they report to? And even if they know who to report to, their jobs are at risk. And it's not just a job, it's also where they live."

Cooper-Lewter said researchers also were sensitive to the constraints facing farmers who employ migrant workers.

"It's always a delicate issue because if we advocate too strongly, farmers can shut the door," she said, adding that is why the report doesn't mention which farms or counties were visited. "The farmers also have many constraints as well. The laws don't always give them what they need to be successful farming, which is extremely hard work anyway."

The nonprofit group Student Action with Farmworkers helped with the research, and it has received $34,000 from the Institute to reach out to more than 750 farmworkers this summer.

The students' work includes translating for the workers and helping them gain access to health care, education and legal and other support services.

Melinda Wiggins, executive director with Student Action with Farmworkers, said South Carolina's migrant worker population is estimated at only about 15,000 to 30,000 -far fewer than the approximately 150,000 workers who pass through North Carolina each year.

"It's a relatively small farmworker population in South Carolina, and that has huge implications for the workers because they're much more isolated and there are fewer resources and attention focused on them. There's much less awareness."

She said many of South Carolina's migrant workers are Mexican or Mexican-Americans, but it's also a diverse group with whites, Haitians and African-Americans.

Wiggins said the state also has some organizations and people doing great work to connect workers with services like English classes and food banks, but the state's migrant worker housing is poor compared to North Carolina.

"It's one of the places where we have found egregious situations, like people living in gutted-out buses or people being locked into the camp in the evenings or having limited access to leave," she said. "The thing that's gotten worse is some of the anti-immigrant laws that have been passed. That has created a lot of fear not just among the immigration community but the larger Latino community as whole."

The notion that migrant farmworkers are taking away jobs from other South Carolina residents is refuted by Chalmers Carr, whose peach farm is in Saluda County.

He noted 2,000 job openings were advertised over two years, but domestic workers made up only one fourth of all applications. And 89 percent of the domestic workers who accepted the job either never reported to work or quit before the season was over.

Cooper-Lewter said she would encourage everyone to pay more attention to migrant and seasonal farmworkers and eliminate any preconceptions they may have about a group of workers who do a lot to strengthen the state.

"Our economy wouldn't be what it is without the labor and contributions of these group of people," she said. "And they want the same thing for their lives that we want with ours. They want to work with dignity. They want to provide for their families. They're really no different from you and I."

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.