Fair Food Pledge Protects Michigan Farm Workers

Nationally, Michigan is the second highest producing state of fresh produce in the U.S. Michigan farmers commonly hire migrant and seasonal laborers to harvest produce through a federal guest worker visa program.

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By: Rachel Kelly, Center for Regional Food Systems, with contributions from Teresa Hendricks, Executive Director, Migrant Legal Aid

Agriculture is a key sector of Michigan’s economy. Nationally, Michigan is the second highest producing state of fresh produce in the U.S. According to a State of Michigan report, 45.1% of Michigan farms grew fresh produce in 2014, putting the state above the national average of 31.4%. Michigan farmers commonly hire migrant and seasonal laborers to harvest produce through a federal guest worker visa program.[1] A State of Michigan Interagency Migrant Services Committee report estimates that there were 49,135 migrant and seasonal farmworkers working in Michigan agriculture in 2013.[2]


Michigan farmers rely heavily on migrant and seasonal farm laborers to harvest specific crops like blueberries, cherries, apples and asparagus. Unlike some commodity crops that are harvested by machines, some fresh produce must be harvested by hand because it is more delicate and oftentimes there is no mechanized way to do so. Further, some fruits and vegetables require routine harvesting. For example, asparagus is a fast-growing crop that must be picked daily during its growing season.


Farm workers face a unique set of challenges, including long hours working in extreme weather conditions, pesticide exposure and physically exhausting labor. Migrant and seasonal workers live on or near the farms on which they work, sometimes with families and young children, and are often completely dependent on the amenities provided by the farmers who employ them. (For a previous Good Food Bite featuring a Michigan farmer who employs migrant farm workers using equitable labor practices, click here).


One Grand Rapids, Michigan-based organization, Migrant Legal Aid, devotes its work to ensuring that migrant workers and their families are treated equitably in this line of work. Migrant Legal Aid’s Fair Food Pledge, part of the organization’s Fair Food Project, is a partnership with food retailers and producers that sets standards for treating farmworkers fairly and ethically. Teresa Hendricks, Executive Director of Migrant Legal Aid, says the following:


The biggest challenge for farmworkers is the short growing season they have to earn their wages, like the 90 days of blueberry harvesting here. Any problems with pay or working conditions, or in the migrant housing, need to be fixed as soon as possible. For farmers, the biggest challenge is managing labor and operations within a small window of time to get produce to market. Misunderstandings or mistreatment of workers can hinder the workflow and jeopardize the bottom line—for growers and workers alike. Likewise, we have our own challenge to protect workers who, while temporarily here, work in remote areas, and may need longer term advocacy from us, such as labor trafficking, wage theft, or housing problems. Over the last ten years, we’ve recovered over 2 million dollars in wage theft and other damages. Our Fair Food Project is totally unique, in that we can now make quick resolution of issues as they arise, by collaborating with corporate responsibility departments of our partners, to prevent and stop labor abuses immediately, and minimize miscommunications that lead to conflict.   


In Michigan, grocery distributer and retailer SpartanNash was the first to sign the pledge. The company, which is the fifth largest food distributor in the U.S., took a pledge to only support produce suppliers who treat immigrants and their families humanely and equitably and provide them with safe living and working conditions. Again, Teresa Hendricks, says:


When SpartanNash signed the pledge on behalf of 150 stores, it blazed the trail for protecting worker dignity and fair treatment. It also opened the door for 2100 of its independent retail customers to participate. There’s no doubt that SpartanNash has catapulted the advancement of 94,000 Michigan farmworkers and family members, and is setting the example for other industry leaders by joining the Fair Food Project.


The pledge seeks to do the following:

  1. Encourage and support compliance with all Federal, State, and Local laws, rules, and regulations affecting Migrant and Seasonal Farmworkers
  2. Designate a corporate responsibility representative to receive and respond to notices of credible complaints/alerts of suspected legal violations and/or active labor disputes
  3. Promptly review and address these complaints and/or take any immediate corrective action to the extent possible
  4. Give preference when possible to employers who respect the dignity of workers and treat them with fairness and equity, without threat of force, violence or retaliation
  5. Maintain a whistleblower policy that protects MSFWs from unlawful retaliation

The Racial Equity subcommittee of the Michigan Good Food Charter Steering Committee is also working to develop opportunities to better understand the needs of migrant farm workers in Michigan. J.R. Reynolds, member of the Racial Equity subcommittee and director of Good Food Battle Creek, says of the group’s work:


We are engaging in a series of panel discussions designed to strengthen awareness of the inequities that exist in some parts of the Southwest Michigan food system, at the intersection of farm owners and farm laborers. The discussions highlight and examine challenges that particularly impact migrant and immigrant workers (and their children) – many of whom are persons of color. The purpose is to create deeper understanding of the mechanisms (intentional and unintentional) that drive these inequities, then share current and potential solutions that equitably address issues on all sides.


To learn more about the pledge signed by SpartanNash, click here. If you know of a retailer who might be interested in signing the Fair Food Pledge, share this article with them or direct them to Migrant Legal Aid’s website - http://migrantlegalaid.com/. Or contact csilva@migrantlegalaid.com (616) 454-5055.

 (1) For details about how the H-2A Temporary Agricultural foreign workers program works, visit the US Department of Labor site.
 (2) Includes field agriculture, nursery, and food processing 

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