Right about this time of year, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, crabbing boats start pulling in filled with feisty, snapping blue crabs. But before this delicacy makes its way to your local grocery store or restaurant, crab pickers pluck out and pack the crabmeat. It’s labor-intensive seasonal work, that, in some ways, hasn’t changed for generations. But over the past twenty years, the forces of globalization have reached deep into this local industry.
At his crab business in Cambridge, Maryland, Jack Brooks flips on the lights in a dark warehouse, filled with hulking machinery.
“Back in the 60s and 70s, when my father and some of his colleagues saw where they were having more and more trouble finding people to come work here, mechanization was the answer. So they said, ‘Let’s build machines.’ This was the result," he says.
The machine snakes all the way around the warehouse. It does everything: washing the crabs, cracking them, and extracting the meat. It was state-of-the-art, but Brooks says the product isn’t as good as traditional hand-picked crabmeat. “The meat just doesn’t stack up to the hand-picked meat,” he offers.
So, these days, they cook, pick, and package crab pretty much the same way as they have since 1890. That’s when Brooks’ great great grandfather, John Morgan Clayton, started the business, J.M. Clayton Company. It’s still almost all done by hand.
The one thing that has changed in this industry is who picks the crab after it’s cooked. These days, 80 percent of the crab pickers Brooks employs are seasonal workers from Mexico, who come for about seven months, and then return home. “We have the capacity to have about 85 people in here picking,” says Brooks.
At the height of the season, later this summer, the long tables and metal stools will be filled with women wearing aprons, quickly and dexterously picking crabmeat. This year, Brooks says the season is at least two or three weeks delayed because of the cold winter.
The industry here started changing back in the 1970s, when the local workers stopped coming back season after season, like they once did.
Brooks says he understands why people would rather take other jobs: Crab picking is hard work, for low pay, and for only part of the year. “How would you like to have your paycheck cut off right around Thanksgiving, and you know, hope for a better year next year? It’s kind of tough that way," he says.
Jack Brooks, whose great, great grandfather started the business in 1890.
At the same time workers were disappearing, imported crab from Asia and Latin America was starting to flood the market, at a fraction of the price of Maryland crab.
The answer for Brooks and others in the business was what was then a little-used guest worker program. In the mid-90s he applied for seasonal foreign workers who would come on H-2B visas.
Sarah Rempel, the policy director for the Baltimore-based group Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, which advocates for migrant worker rights, says there are fundamental flaws with the H-2B visa program. A few years ago, her group interviewed more than 40 migrant workers in Maryland’s crab industry.
“They worked long hours for low pay. They were in a very vulnerable position, their employment was tied to only one employer, and they could not switch jobs when there were abusive employment conditions.”
She says workers are afraid to complain if they are mistreated, because if they lose their job, they will likely also lose their visa, and be sent home. This may be especially problematic for people who’ve already gone into debt just to get to the United States — Rempel says many H-2B workers pay to get a job, and many have to get loans to do that.
“What we found was that 58 percent of workers were paying recruitment fees, although they are technically forbidden, and that 47 percent of workers took out pre-employment loans to cover the cost of not only recruitment, but the visa processing fees and transportation to the U.S.," she says.
But the people who run crab businesses in Maryland say they don’t know of anyone who mistreats their foreign workers. “I’m sure there’s some bad apples around that don’t treat people right,” says Brian Hall, who owns G.W. Hall & Son, on rural Hooper’s Island.
“These people down here in Dorchester County, we treat the girls the way they’re supposed to be treated.”
As far as wages, he says he’s paying good money. The base wage is $7.52 an hour, but workers can earn more by picking more crab. Hall says most make $11 or $12 an hour.
He says that’s the most he can pay, and still have a chance against global competitors.
Back in Cambridge, Jack Brooks says a lot of his friends have already gone out of business.
“In 1995, before the imports took hold, there were 53 companies in the state of Maryland that do what we do. Now there are less than 20 licensed, and probably less than 15 operating," he says.
But there is an upside to the cheap imported crab that’s now available everywhere: Brooks says it’s expanded the market into parts of the country, like the Midwest, where not a lot of people used to eat crab.
Music: "Deep Blue Day" by Brian Eno from Trainspotting Original Movie Soundtrack