Crab Industry Workers Reveal Injustice of ‘Legal’ Migrant Labor

Government-sanctioned exploitation in the crab industry shows why rights activists balk at the concept of guestworker programs.

By Michelle Chen Jul 16, 2010

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 Migrante 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.

(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)