Local Crab-Picking Industry Struggles Amid Low Harvests, Global Competition (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

Transcripts

Local Crab-Picking Industry Struggles Amid Low Harvests, Global Competition

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:03
We're going to head across the Chesapeake now, from the Patuxent River to Maryland's Eastern Shore. That's where, right about now, the blue crab harvest is on. 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 as Jacob Fenston tells us, thanks to globalization, in a lot of ways it has.

MR. JACOB FENSTON

00:00:29
Jack Brooks flips on the lights in a dark warehouse, filled with hulking machinery. This is at his crab-picking business, in Cambridge, Md.

MR. JACK BROOKS

00:00:38
Back in the '60s and '70s, when then my father and some of his colleagues, they were having more and more trouble finding people to come to work here, mechanization was the answer. So they said, "Let's build machines." So this is the result.

FENSTON

00:00:53
The machine snakes all the way around the warehouse. It does everything, washing crabs, cracking them, and extracting the meat.

BROOKS

00:01:00
This was state-of-the-art stuff.

FENSTON

00:01:02
But the resulting product isn't as good.

BROOKS

00:01:03
The meat is -- just doesn't stack up to the hand-picked meat.

FENSTON

00:01:07
So, these days, they cook, pick, and package crab pretty much the same way 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.

BROOKS

00:01:22
As the crabs come in we put them in these baskets. And we'll dump them out and then we'll take them in here to these steamers, where we steam them. Basically, tighten these wing nuts down, there's six of them, and in these vessels of about 15 pounds of pressure per square inch, so it's kind of a big steam pressure cooker.

FENSTON

00:01:51
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. They come for about seven months, and then return home.

BROOKS

00:02:05
We have a capacity to have about 80 people in here, 85 people in here picking.

FENSTON

00:02:10
At the height of the season, later this summer, the long tables and metal stools will be filled with women wearing aprons. On the day I visited, early in the season, they weren't picking crabs. 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 local workers stopped coming back season after season, like they once did.

BROOKS

00:02:35
Instead of having all the folks you had in the fall when you got done, there were less.

FENSTON

00:02:39
Brooks says he understands why people might rather take other jobs. Crab picking is hard work, for low pay, and for only part of the year.

FENSTON

00:02:47
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.

FENSTON

00:02:54
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 was what was then a little-used guest worker program. In the mid-1990s, he applied for seasonal foreign guest workers who would come on H-2B visas.

MS. SARAH REMPEL

00:03:15
There are fundamental flaws in the H-2B visa system.

FENSTON

00:03:19
Sarah Rempel is policy director for the Baltimore-based group Centro de los Derechos del Migrante.

REMPEL

00:03:25
CDM or the Center for Migrants' Rights.

FENSTON

00:03:27
A few years ago, the group interviewed more than 40 migrant workers in Maryland's crab industry.

REMPEL

00:03:32
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.

FENSTON

00:03:44
She says workers are afraid to complain if they're mistreated, because if they lose their job, they will also likely 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.

REMPEL

00:04:04
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.

MR. BRIAN HALL

00:04:24
I'm sure there's some bad apples around that don't treat people right.

FENSTON

00:04:27
Brian Hall, owns G.W. Hall & Son, a crab-picking business on rural Hooper's Island.

HALL

00:04:33
These people down here in Dorchester County, we treat the girls the way they're supposed to be treated.

FENSTON

00:04:38
And as far as wages, he says he's paying good money.

HALL

00:04:41
$7.52 an hour, guaranteed.

FENSTON

00:04:43
Just above minimum wage, but workers can earn more by picking more crab.

HALL

00:04:48
Most of my girls make $11 or $12 an hour.

FENSTON

00:04:50
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.

BROOKS

00:05:00
In 1995, before the imports really 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.

FENSTON

00:05:11
But there is an upside to the cheap imported crab that's now available everywhere. Brooks says it's expanded the market. There are now crab eaters in parts of the country, like the Midwest, where there didn't use to be. I'm Jacob Fenston.

SHEIR

00:05:41
After the break, now you see it, now you don't. The mysterious disappearance of an often overlooked species in the Chesapeake Bay.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1

00:05:49
We'd be remiss if we didn't consider the fact that it's all connected and that all of these guys are an important part of the food chain.

SHEIR

00:05:56
That's just ahead as our "On The Bay" show continues, here on "Metro Connection," on WAMU 88.5.

ANNOUNCER

00:06:01
WAMU news coverage of labor and employment issues is made possible by your contributions, and by Matthew Watson, in memory of Marjorie Watson. And support for WAMU 88.5's coverage of the environment comes from the Wallace Genetic Foundation, dedicated to the promotion of farmland preservation, the reduction of environmental toxins, and the conservation of natural resources.
Transcripts of WAMU programs are available for personal use. Transcripts are provided "As Is" without warranties of any kind, either express or implied. WAMU does not warrant that the transcript is error-free. For all WAMU programs, the broadcast audio should be considered the authoritative version. Transcripts are owned by WAMU 88.5 American University Radio and are protected by laws in both the United States and International law. You may not sell or modify transcripts or reproduce, display, distribute, or otherwise use the transcript, in whole or in part, in any way for any public or commercial purpose without the express written permission of WAMU. All requests for uses beyond personal and noncommercial use should be referred to (202) 885-1200.