News / USA

Mexican Guest Workers Take Jobs Few Americans Want

Report calls for reforms to protect rights of migrant workers

About 66,000 migrants enter the United States legally as H2B Guest Workers each year.
About 66,000 migrants enter the United States legally as H2B Guest Workers each year.

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Rosanne Skirble

Raquel Trejo Rubio has a job few Americans apparently want.

The 28-year-old Mexican migrant picks crab meat. "I came because there is no work or money in Mexico," says Trejo. "I have a daughter and I have to support her."

Guest worker

Trejo is among the 66,000 migrants who enter the United States legally as H2B Guest Workers.

H2B is a visa program that gives  workers access to minimum-wage, non-agricultural jobs that, employers say, would otherwise go unfilled because the pay is low, the employment seasonal and the work often back breaking and tedious.

Trejo's employer is G. W. Hall & Son, a major seafood supplier on Hoopers Island, a remote community on Maryland's eastern shore.  For eight hours a day, five or six days a week Trejo works at a long table where the hard-shelled crabs, caught that morning and then steamed, are piled high and ready for her to pick apart.   

She makes a minimum hourly wage of $7.25, sometimes more if she picks quickly.  Risking injury Trejo works at a rapid pace tossing empty shells into large waste cans. The job is not difficult. It's a matter of practice.

"What's difficult is to be separated from my family and 10-year-old daughter for much of the year," she says.

Raquel Trejo Rubio is in her fourth season as a Maryland crab picker with G.W. Hall & Son.
Raquel Trejo Rubio is in her fourth season as a Maryland crab picker with G.W. Hall & Son.

Jobs Americans don't want

G.W. Hall & Son once employed American workers. No more. The company says seasonal tedious jobs don't appeal to Americans anymore.

So owner Brian Hall says he does everything he can to keep his Mexican workers happy. "We provide transportation to and from Mexico. They've got a house, a satellite TV, air conditioning.  Anything they want, we get it for them."

Ninety percent of Hall's business is picking crab meat.  Without the women, he says, "I'm out of business and every other plant [around here] is too." Crab is a $30 million a year industry in Maryland.

Trejo rents the three-bedroom ranch house she shares with co-workers from G.W. Hall & Son.

It is the money that keeps her here for the season, which can last between eight and nine months.  "In Mexico, I earned 1,400 pesos  [$110] every two weeks. Here I can earn that in three days."

Blanca Aguilar, Raquel Trejo and Sandra Garcia [left to right] relax after an eight hour day that begins as early as 4:30am.
Blanca Aguilar, Raquel Trejo and Sandra Garcia [left to right] relax after an eight hour day that begins as early as 4:30am.

Exploited workers

Despite that, a new report finds that crab workers like Trejo are isolated and exploited by their employers. The report, based on interviews with 40 former crab pickers, was published by the American University Washington College of Law and the Centro de los Derechos Del Migrante, or Center for Migrant Rights.

Crab picker Elisa Martinez Tovar told her story at a news conference that coincided with the report's release. "When we don't know this country, we imagine that everything is beautiful, but once we get here, we see in truth is that it's another reality."

Martinez says she suffered a string of abuses, from a dishonest recruiter and rat-infested living conditions to not enough work.

"When we wanted to change jobs my boss said,  You came to work for me.  You can't go elsewhere.  I paid 1,000 dollars for you and you are obligated to stay.  And if you go, I'll report you to immigration and you won't be able to return."

G.W. Hall & Son owner Brian Hall receives up to 700 bushels of crabs daily at his Maryland processing plant.
G.W. Hall & Son owner Brian Hall receives up to 700 bushels of crabs daily at his Maryland processing plant.

Troubling allegations

Those allegations trouble Brian Hall at G.W. Hall & Son Seafood.

"Anybody who treated their girls that badly should be kicked out of the [H2B] program. It makes me look bad and I don't like that."

Bill Sieling, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association also disputes the claims in the report.

"We had no inkling that such a report was being worked on," he says. "And, many of the things in there are not accurate. Certainly by our standards and by present day conditions most of the report does not stand up to the conditions that they are today."

Lead author Jayesh Rathod, an assistant professor of law at American University says the report seeks to give the migrant perspective.  It calls for reforms in recruitment in Mexico and improved working conditions in the United States - not for the elimination of a popular program.

"The women told us the program is critical to their livelihoods." Rathod says. "It's made a huge difference in the lives and education of their children. They don't want the program to go away. They just want to make sure that they have flexibility and rights to make changes of employers and to earn enough under the program without going back to Mexico remaining in debt."

That's what Trejo wants too. She's already earned enough to open a small shop in Mexico, but until it can support her family and help build a better future for her daughter, she will have to continue returning to her job shelling crabs in America.

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