Tomato Camp Eastern Shore, Virginia

He says the stains on his hands are from the combination of pesticides and fertilizers used on the tomato plants. The same dark brown stains the clothes and shoes airing out on lines and roofs across the migrant labor camp.

Another person says he often goes days without washing the dark film from his hands because it provides a layer of protection when he is picking the tomatoes. Wearing gloves, he says, would make the work slower.

That, and it takes bleach to get it off.

The Eastern Shore of Virginia—an area the produces much of the tomatoes, potatoes, and other produce that fills your grocery store shelves—sees its population swell in the summer months as migrant workers arrive to do the essential labor of harvesting our food.

The Legal Aid Justice Center's farmworker team currently has one full-time community organizer in the region. During the summer growing season, a team of LAJC organizers and lawyers fan out across the Shore to inform migrant workers of their rights, hear about their needs, and help advocate for better conditions.

Many of the people at the camp are here from Mexico and South/Central America on H-2A work visas—a government program that allows farm owners to bring in foreign workers on a temporary basis. They travel up and down the east coast to work for the farms that sponsored their visas.

This camp, like many others, is isolated away from any commercial or social facilities like grocery stores and churches, so the workers are dependent on the grower to take them to buy food or send money home.

Still, the camp is better than some. The bathrooms and kitchen facilities, while pretty bare-bones, are in decent shape.

It is tight, though. Four workers share a small cinderblock room lined with bunk beds, and they share a bathroom with the four who live in the next room over. No air conditioning is provided; the workers who can afford them haul their own window units from camp to camp.

The workers don't want their names used due to fears of retaliation by their employer, but they tell us about some of the hardships they face each year in working in the fields.

There are no rest breaks, despite the hot and humid conditions, and the days are long and tough.

"They just tell us to drink more water,"

We were [in the row] with water up past our ankles. When I bent down to pick tomatoes, I breathed in hot vapor; it was suffocating. After lunch, I felt weird. My arms were tired, and I was getting dizzy. When I lowered my head, everything started spinning.

I try to meet the minimum [production standard] so that they bring me back next year. I feel like I will leave my life in the field.

As the final buses from the fields arrive at the camp and the men walk back to their temporary homes to change, clean, and eat, many gather on the picnic tables that line the buildings to talk.

Soon the sun will be fully set and it won't be long before the buses arrive again in the morning—assuming the rain clouds that have been forming don't mean a wash-out and no work.

Camps like this line the Eastern Shore of Virginia. The people who live and work here are often left out of key protections that other Virginia workers enjoy, like the state minimum wage, health and safety measures, and federal collective bargaining laws.

LAJC continues to work alongside migrant laborers and with other organizations and community groups to help build power among workers on the Shore and to push for improved working conditions and stronger enforcement.

And it's not just the camps on the Shore. Migrant laborers are employed across the Commonwealth, from the furthest southwest corner of Virginia to the state capital of Richmond, working jobs at Christmas tree farms, meatpacking plants, oyster farms, construction sites, and more.

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