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Michigan DOL inspections yield child labor violations

Michigan Correspondent

SOUTH HAVEN, Mich. — U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) investigators of Michigan migrant labor camps found many problems, including, in two instances, shocking violations of child labor law.

The DOL issued a statement announcing it had levied more than $36,000 in penalties against eight growers in five Michigan counties. James Smith, district director of the department’s Wage and Hour Division in Detroit, said in the statement the violations are “intolerable and disappointing.

“Among the violations we cited were workers living in unlicensed labor camps with sewage from a faulty septic system seeping up in close proximity to living units, untreated waste water spilling out of broken pipes, no hot water for hand-washing and infestation by insects and rodents.”

The labor camp inspection and licensing system in Michigan is voluntary, but according to state officials, growers like the program because state approval provides them with reassurance they are doing things the right way. But that seal of approval didn’t protect all of the growers.

“In most cases migrant housing is required to be licensed and inspected prior to occupancy by migrant workers,” said Scott Allen, a spokesman for the DOL.

Inspections were conducted at farms in Berrien, Cass, Kent, Newaygo, Ottawa, Oceana, Muskegon and Van Buren counties. Adkin Blue Ribbon Packing Co. of South Haven and Jawor Brothers of Ravenna were fined $2,584 for child labor violations. Children under 12 years of age were found working in their fields. There was one instance of a six-year-old working in a field.

In addition, Adkin was fined $4,250 for safety and health standards violations at its Keefe camp. Berrybrook Farms in Dowagiac was fined $3,000 for housing camp violations, as well. Scherer Farms of Bloomingdale was fined more than any other farm. It was assessed $16,700 for housing violations.

The other growers that had violations and were fined included Froehlich Farms, Schaenfeld Farms and William Bouwcamp. Eighteen companies had violations, but some of those were minor and didn’t warrant penalties, Allen said.

“There were 17 companies that didn’t have any violations, so we know it can be done right,” Allen stated. “If they warrant a citation, then they aren’t minor or incidental violations.”

Several messages were left with Adkin and several other farms fined, but calls were not returned as of press time. Tony Marr, general manager of Adkin, has stated in previously published reports that the company provides employees with a copy of its policies, which forbid illegal child labor. It requires that employees sign the policy statement. Allen said he could not comment on that aspect of the case.

“Meijer is suspending business with Adkin as these allegations are investigated,” said Frank Guglielmi, a spokesman for Meijer Corp. “All Meijer suppliers are required to maintain high legal and ethical standards. These allegations are very serious and the actions alleged are obviously inconsistent with Meijer values and are totally unacceptable.”

Adkin is listed in the Michigan Department of Agriculture’s 2008 directory of licensed migrant labor housing sites. It has two camps in Allegan County and another one in Van Buren County. Together, these comprise 41 dwellings licensed to house a maximum of 208 people. The other seven farms cited by the DOL have camps listed in the directory. The 2008 directory lists 847 licensed migrant labor camps in Michigan, with a maximum total capacity of 22,731.