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There’s More Than One Crisis in Crab Country

Jeff Campbell

Posted on May 13, 2018 08:22

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It’s crab picking time in Maryland’s renowned seafood industry. The only problem is? There's a critical labor shortage of crab pickers.

It’s springtime in Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay region, which means it’s crab season. Crabs are synonymous with Maryland, world famous for their seafood, including their prized Blue Crabs. One of the key sub-industries crucial to the health of the Maryland seafood industry is crab meat production, which requires crab pickers each season. Each crabbing season, Maryland companies rely on a heavily Mexican workforce that comes north for the crab picking jobs, and they have been making this trip for years. This season, however, the crab picking workforce has dropped by at least 40% and half of Maryland’s crab houses have no one to pick the crabs. As reported by the Baltimore Sun, the shortage stems from the industry’s inability to secure the needed visas to allow the workers into the United States.

At the heart of the shortage is the H-2B Temporary Non-Agricultural Worker visa program which allows employers to bring in foreign nationals temporarily to fill needed jobs. Maryland crabbers and related businesses have been doing this for years, applying for the visas awarded on a first-come, first-serve basis. Starting this year, however, the Trump administration is awarding the limited visas in a lottery system, which has resulted in a workforce shortage and the inability to produce picked crab meat.

The labor shortage is having a negative ripple effect endangering the livelihoods of everyone from life-long crabbers to local general stores. According to reporting by the Washington Post, Maryland watermen are reluctant to lay blame on the Trump administration, but it is their Department of Homeland Security that made the change to the visa system. Representatives for the affected districts have asked the administration to approve increases in the visas allotted and have received assurances that the increases are coming. In the meantime, however, the Maryland crab industry is left in peril and the Trump administration has shown a disconnect with the small businesses that they promised to champion.

In response to the labor shortage reporting, Rachel Micah-Jones, founder of the Centro De Los Derechos Del Migrante, Inc. wrote a recent Op-Ed for the Baltimore Sun calling attention to the struggle of the migrant workers (largely female) that have been picking the crabs under the H-2B visa program. She writes that the seafood industry has a history of systemic labor abuses including deplorable housing conditions, unsafe working conditions and threats against those reporting labor violations. She cites their report Picked Apart: The Hidden Struggles Of Migrant Worker Women In The Maryland Crab Industry, and calls for not just merely an increase in the migrant worker numbers, but for comprehensive reform of the visa program that incorporates needed worker protections. The plight of the Maryland crabbers is more complicated than a simple labor shortage, and we need effective leadership to help everyone in this fragile way of life, from the watermen and crabbing industry to the migrant workers that play a crucial role in sustaining it.

Jeff Campbell

Posted on May 13, 2018 08:22

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Source: Denver Post

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