A country built on guest workers
For more than a century, America has relied on temporary foreign workers to plant and harvest.
During World Wars I and II, labor shortages prompted the United States to open its doors to Mexican workers. The US government has assured that temporary workers are treated fairly under the Bracero program, called the Spanish word “farmer’s hand.” But supervision was minimal, and the program became known for its harsh working and housing conditions, which led to its decline in 1964. By this time, Congress had created another pathway for temporary agricultural workers, which became the H-2A program in 1986.
For decades, the H-2A program remained relatively small. But over the past 10 years, the demand for temporary farm and ranch workers has begun.
In 2011, Georgia passed a broad anti-immigration law requiring larger businesses to use E-Verify to verify new hires and impose harsh fines and prison sentences on employees who used fake IDs to get jobs. The law forced Georgian farmers, who had long relied on undocumented immigrants and migrant domestic workers, to harvest blueberries, onions, peaches and other crops.
Georgia is now a leading destination for H-2A agricultural workers, as well as Florida, North Carolina, California, Washington and Louisiana. Despite the president’s order to “hire an American,” even Trump’s own vineyard in Virginia was certified to hire 23 H-2A workers last year. Industry lobbyists are pushing Congress and the Trump administration to extend the program to new types of agricultural workers and make it cheaper and easier to use.
The growth of the program has spawned the cottage industry of visa agents and producers’ associations to help farmers focus on the complex application process. But more and more farmers are turning to farm contractors like Sanchez to supply workers. Last year, the Department of Labor certified 1,900 applications for H-2A workers from contractors – three times the number in 2014 – authorizing them to bring more than 100,000 temporary farm workers to the United States, according to an analysis by federal data from NBC News. Many contractors are former agricultural workers themselves.
“Theoretically, organizing labor contractors is a really good thing because the contractor specializes in finding jobs for crews and allows employees to get more hours,” said Philip Martin, a labor economist at the University of California, Davis. But many are competing to provide workers at the lowest prices, Martin said, creating an incentive to save workers’ wages and housing, given the lack of vigilant supervision. “The Department of Labor hasn’t been very good at throwing out the bad ones,” he said.
In late 2017, Sanchez applied to the Labor Department to bring 30 H-2A workers to Georgia to harvest pine straw, confirming that he had tried to recruit U.S. workers as required by the program, but no one had applied for the job. He promised that workers abroad would be paid either $ 10.62 an hour – the minimum for H-2A workers in Georgia that year, based on the federal formula – or $ 1 for a bale of straw that reaches the same minimum hourly wage; they will be housed in a motel that has already been inspected by the government, according to NBC News.
Instead, the workers say, they stayed at the motel for a week – sharing beds, some were forced to sleep on the floor – before Sanchez moved them to a dilapidated house in Blackshire.
No one has probably checked Sanchez: Under federal law, housing must be inspected only when an employer applies to bring U.S.-2A workers to the United States. After the arrival of workers – sometimes months later – no further observations are required.
After visiting more than a dozen H-2A sites in Georgia and North Carolina in November, NBC News found that government-approved agricultural housing was littered with insect and spider nests, as well as cardboard covering broken windows. The dilapidated trailer in Georgia had transparent holes in the walls; wild cats crawled into the kitchen, and an H-2A worker documented a video sent to the Georgia Legal Service, a law firm representing farmers. “Rats are better than us,” the worker said in the video.
The Department of Labor conducts unscheduled inspections of H-2A workplaces throughout the country, including periodic housing investigations; the agency’s payroll department can issue fines, force employers to pay wages, ban employers from the program, and bring cases to justice. But enforcement resources have not kept pace with the program’s rapid expansion: staff pay has fallen by 19 percent since 2016, according to federal data. And even when employers are barred from hiring more H-2A workers, which is relatively rare, the bans are usually only temporary – one to three years.
State supervision is also limited. Using federal grants, government agencies help H-2A employers comply with the program’s requirements and conduct housing inspections necessary before workers move. Despite the rapid growth of the H-2A program, federal funding for these government agencies has not increased, and some received less than last year than three years earlier, according to data released in a 2019 lawsuit against the Department of Labor. Georgia’s federal funding has fallen by 15 percent, according to the State Labor Administration.
Some states, such as North Carolina and California, also have their own standards and inspection systems for farmers, and they are taking action against H-2A employers who break the rules. But others, including Georgia, have few additional rules and limited enforcement powers.
Last year, the Trump administration acknowledged some of the “dangerous and unsanitary” conditions faced by H-2A workers. In July 2019, the administration released a long-term proposal that sought to improve housing and increase the bonds that contractors should receive as proof that they can pay their employees.
But the administration’s plan, to be finalized by the Ministry of Labor next month, will also ease rules for employers who have complained that the H-2A program is too slow, expensive and cumbersome. Government agencies would allow less frequent inspections of housing by providing employers with certificates. Meanwhile, workers will be responsible for most of their travel expenses; some would be paid less under the new federal formula for calculating the H-2A minimum wage, while others would be paid more.
Some lawmakers are trying to push the program in a new direction. Last year, the Democratic House passed a bipartisan farm bill that provides a path to citizenship for some undocumented immigrants and H-2A workers. The bill will also add 20,000 H-2A visas throughout the year, which are currently unlimited but only seasonal.
But the chances of Congress undergoing any kind of immigration repair are slim, with a pandemic sweeping the country and a presidential election in just a few months.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration continues to keep the door open for H-2A workers, temporarily easing visa regulations by allowing employers to hire guest workers faster and keep them in the United States longer. “The Trump administration is working to keep our farmers and producers competitive by ensuring that American workers have access to more opportunities and higher wages,” the White House said in a statement, adding that health and safety concerns and employee safety H-2A employment “can be identified and addressed”.
Even as unemployment rose to its highest level since the Great Depression, industry leaders say farmers are still trying to find enough workers to plant and harvest – hard, manual labor that is usually found in remote areas.
Proponents fear that the downturn in America’s economy could put those guests at even greater risk. Although the demand for products sold in grocery stores remains high, the pandemic has dealt a severe blow to many farms that supply restaurants, cafeterias and other establishments.
This has put more pressure on manufacturers relying on the H-2A program to cut costs – and this could ultimately mean lower wages, housing and other labor costs, said Michael Hancock, a lawyer for Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, Civil Rights and Employment Law Firm. Hancock was a Labor Department official in President Barack Obama’s administration.
“Who is the most powerful people in this process, in the weakest negotiating and negotiating position?” said Hancock. “Workers”.