Migrant Workers Beyond the Bubble

By Guest Contributor

“I love Middlebury College because it is in Vermont: everything seems to work here, I feel like I’m far away from those sad things that we see in the news!” That was one of the first things I heard from a Middlebury student, back when I was applying to the College. Indeed, on a campus that abounds with rich food and intense academic opportunities, it is easy to generalize our reality and think our surroundings are the same way.

But I want to tell another story, one that could be compatible with “the sad things we see in the news” the student referred to — except it is happening only a few miles away from our end-of-history campus. This is the story of the Mexican migrant workers in Vermont.

Back in 1994, Mexico, Canada and the U.S. implemented a trade liberalization agreement named the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Mexico approved this treaty under the promises of expanded and globalized trade that would bring more foreign direct investment, and a greater number of high paying jobs, which would increase the standard of living in the country as a whole. After almost 20 years, we see that the reality is the opposite: while the standard of living grew within historical Mexican oligarchies, the country in total suffered from severe levels of unemployment and underemployment while millions of jobs were lost and many farmers went bankrupt as heavily subsidized American products flooded Mexican markets.

A 2008 report by Agence Global stated that every hour Mexico imported $1.5 million worth of food; in that same hour, 30 farmers migrated to the U.S. This phenomenon brought many of those farmers to the United States, some to places like Vermont.

Those who managed to get here, after a risky and dangerous border crossing, integrate into Vermont’s dairy farms’ workforce. Most of these workers are undocumented and typically work 60-80 hours per week enduring extreme isolation in Vermont’s rural areas. This situation leaves the migrant community in a vulnerable position in one of the whitest and most rural states in the U.S. Workers have reported being subject to racial profiling, highly precarious living and labor environments, and are overly dependent on employers to meet their basic needs.

Some of the Migrant Workers also report facing poor living and working conditions. They mention living in improvised, insect-infested shelters that once were barns. Others mention living in trailers overcrowded with other workers. And while most of them have developed solid working relationships with their employers, some workers report having gone months without getting paid for their labor.

Could the farmers not simply give better conditions to the workers? Ironically, some of the nasty effects of globalization have also hit Vermont’s dairy farmers.

“Globalized competition has led to unstable and oddly low prices. We have seen times when the price paid to a farmer for a gallon of the milk produced was $2 lower than the actual price of production,” said Clark Hinsdale III, President of the Vermont Farm Bureau.

Indeed, with fierce, and often times unfair, competition from businesses as far away as New Zealand, many local dairy farmers have been struggling to provide for their own families. Thus, it often becomes complicated to also provide good living conditions for their employees.

And here is where I believe the student with whom I spoke before coming to Middlebury was awfully wrong. In this globalized world, there is no way poverty, poor living conditions and other issues can be limited to the places “we see in the news.” These issues happen here, now, and they deserve our attention.

I believe this issue deserves Middlebury College students’ attention. How many times do we seek places abroad to work on high-impact community projects, while there are big issues just around the corner?

Fortunately, several people in Vermont (including Middlebury students) are starting to take notice of the 1,500 Migrant Farm Workers in the state and are getting involved in their communities. Through grassroots advocacy and the effort of many workers and volunteers, the state government just approved a law that allows the migrant population to get drivers licenses without providing full documentation that could be implemented as soon as next year. This is a big victory — one that may help remedy some of the problems these people face in accessing other regions.

However, there is a lot more that we can do. The Middlebury student-run organization JUNTOS approaches this issue on many different levels: under policy and advocacy, it seeks to influence Vermont policymaking towards harmonizing and stimulating fair relationships between the Migrant Workers community, employers and the state community as a whole.

JUNTOS also has the compañeros program, in which the students reach out to local migrant workers and start friendships with them, learning from them and helping whenever possible. This way the members involved learn how to better help the community. “Who better understands what they need than they themselves?” questions Guadalupe Daniela.

Want to get involved? Get in touch!
email: [email protected]
phone: (832) 889-5798

MARCOS BARROZO FILHO ’17 is from Uberlandia, Brazil