Powell Fellow to Help Immigrants in N.C. Seafood Industry
When Clermont Fraser studied abroad as an undergraduate in a small town in the Andes Mountains of Argentina, she met many people who wanted to come to America. They were willing to leave their families to do so, even in the aftermath of Sept. 11 when the U.S. economy looked disastrous.
Fraser, then a sociology major at the University of Virginia, was surprised. She knew the kinds of cultural, social and financial barriers they would face. The experience helped spark her interest in immigrant workers, whose lives she hopes to improve now in America as this year’s Powell Fellow.
“In sociology you study social inequality and how our social institutions perpetuate those inequalities. I think it’s difficult to spend four years studying that and then not go out and respond to it in some way,” said Fraser, a third-year law student.
Given each year to a graduating student pursuing a public service career, the Powell Fellowship provides a $35,000 salary for one year, with the expectation of renewal the second year, allowing recipients to work at no cost to a partner public-interest organization.
Fraser has partnered with the Raleigh-based North Carolina Justice Center, where she will monitor the rights of some 4,000 migrant seafood workers who journey from the coast of Mexico to the coast of North Carolina each year to pick crabs and harvest oysters. They are employed there on H2B visas for six to seven months at a time.
Many of the center’s migrant worker efforts are focused on workers in the pine tree, apple and tobacco industry. In deciding what project to pursue, Fraser talked to migrant attorney Carol Brooke, who told her “If there were more resources, [the seafood industry would be] where they would dedicate them.”
At the Law School, Fraser’s interests and Spanish-speaking skills led her to volunteer for the student group the Migrant Farmworker Project, which provides information on immigrant rights to area workers and monitors camp conditions.
During her first-year summer, with the help of a Public Interest Law Association (PILA) grant, Fraser worked at the Legal Aid Justice Center on employment, housing and consumer law issues.
“I loved it. It was a lot of client contact,” Fraser said. She found that many problems could be resolved by calling a client’s employer or landlord. After that, “the [employer or landlord] would start treating them better,” she said. “Often all it took was someone speaking up for them.”
With another PILA grant in hand the following summer, Fraser journeyed to Nashville, where she worked for Southern Migrant Legal Services, which has a client base of six states. She traveled as far as Arkansas and Texas to investigate cases. Most of the claims, for failure to pay minimum wage, fell under the Fair Labor Standards Act. Other cases related to the Migrant Seasonal Agricultural Workers Protection Act, which specifies what employers and recruiters must disclose to potential workers about pay, housing conditions, and work breaks, among other issues.
“Often an employer would pay a whole family on one paycheck — just pay the head of household — because that way they don’t have to withhold all the taxes,” Fraser said, “and they can pretend they have fewer employees than they do.
“If they don’t get their own paycheck, it’s hard to tell how much they’re getting paid, or hard to show if they’re getting paid for every hour of work because it’s not broken down for them,” she said.
In short, the most common problem for migrant workers is “they’re not getting paid enough.”
In the seafood industry, workers have timecards they are supposed to punch at the beginning of the day, but their employers will ask them to work a while before they punch their card.
“With an H2B visa, you’re basically tied to your employer, you can’t go and work for anyone else, and if you lose your job, you have to return home.” she said. “They’re scared to complain.”
Fraser wants to turn her fellowship into a career that focuses on public-interest work.
“I plan to continue advocating for migrant workers and low-wage immigrant workers throughout North Carolina,” she said.
• Reported by Mary Wood