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Legal Aid: Many MD Farmworkers Cut Off From Legal Help

PHOTO: Farmworkers in the field.
PHOTO: Farmworkers in the field.
September 4, 2012

BALTIMORE - Harvest season is under way in Maryland, and as farmworkers dig in so do human rights watchdogs. Wage theft, unsanitary conditions and safety concerns are among the issues on the radar, but those who want to help migrant farm workers experiencing those problems have problems of their own, and they've sent a letter to a special United Nations project outlining the situation.

Reena Shah, the director of Maryland Legal Aid's Human Rights Project, says it's difficult to contact migrant farm workers because growers can stop anyone trying to do outreach to the farm workers, especially when the workers live on the property.

"The growers will not allow them on, they threaten trespass, and there's a lot of threat of retaliation to the farm workers who are reaching out to get help."

Shah says a Maryland Attorney General's opinion found that property rights can't be above all of the other rights a person would have, but she says that's not set in state law.

Shah says examples of growers denying legal access to farm workers have been documented in most states. Specific examples are represented in the letter, from 14 states. Shah has found these are not isolated incidents.

"These are things that happen on a regular basis that affect this population in a very grave manner, which results in all sorts of human rights violations, flagrant human rights violations."

This is the first time legal aid organizations across the country have come together to submit this type of letter to the U.N. The letter was sent to the Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights.

Deborah Courson Smith/Deb Courson Smith, Public News Service - MD