MS. REBECCA SHEIR
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
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
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.
The machine snakes all the way around the warehouse. It does everything, washing crabs, cracking them, and extracting the meat.
This was state-of-the-art stuff.
But the resulting product isn't as good.
The meat is -- just doesn't stack up to the hand-picked meat.
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.
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.
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.
We have a capacity to have about 80 people in here, 85 people in here picking.
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.
Instead of having all the folks you had in the fall when you got done, there were less.
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.
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.
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
There are fundamental flaws in the H-2B visa system.
Sarah Rempel is policy director for the Baltimore-based group Centro de los Derechos del Migrante.
CDM or the Center for Migrants' Rights.
A few years ago, the 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'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.
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
I'm sure there's some bad apples around that don't treat people right.
Brian Hall, owns G.W. Hall & Son, a crab-picking business on rural Hooper's Island.
These people down here in Dorchester County, we treat the girls the way they're supposed to be treated.
And as far as wages, he says he's paying good money.
$7.52 an hour, guaranteed.
Just above minimum wage, but workers can earn more by picking more crab.
Most of my girls 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 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.
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.
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
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.
That's just ahead as our "On The Bay" show continues, here on "Metro Connection," on WAMU 88.5.
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