Agribusiness Uses Guest Worker Program to Drive Down Wages for Farmworkers

Growers are abusing, threatening and controlling workers who come from another country to the United States to work in their fields under a legal status of an H-2A temporary work visa, according to a report by writer and photojournalist David Bacon for the Oakland Institute, “Dignity or Exploitation – what future for farmworker families in the United States?”

As workers are left vulnerable to discrimination that would be unlawful in other employment situations, growers pressure workers to work harder, and constantly take advantage of them, since there is little risk for employers due to the lack of government protections.

Not only are workers being abused, but they have no protected rights to complain because they can easily get deported, and be sent back home, never allowed to return to the United States to work.

The H-2A visa category, called a guest worker program, was expanded by the Trump administration, which further told the U.S. Department of Agriculture not to collect the information needed to set the minimum wages for a quarter-of-a-million guest workers on U.S. farms. This simply meant that wages were cut for farmworkers with the additional profit going to growers. Stopping or restricting the H-2A guest worker program is one of the most important decisions that will face the Biden administration, Bacon writes.

The H-2A guest worker program is similar to the Bracero program, which was established in 1942 and ended in 1964. Growers used the Bracero program to keep wages low as they replaced local farmworkers with immigrants from Mexico and the Philippines even though they were supposed to offer jobs to local workers before bringing in Braceros. University of California, Davis, agricultural economist Philip Martin said, “The availability of braceros held down farmworker earnings.”

In the 1950s, while wages in the cities rose from $1.60 to $2.60 per hour, median farm wages only rose from 85 cents to $1.20 per hour.

Even though the Bracero program officially ended, the H-2A guest worker program shows that there are similar immigration programs to benefit agribusiness.

Barracks for H-2A guest workers are isolated and miles away from a nearby town with no public transportation. Growers and labor contractors do not allow workers to leave the farm and fences surround barracks to keep them in. The Southern Poverty Law Center described conditions in the H-2A guest worker program as “Close to Slavery” in a 2007 report. Legal-service agencies, farmworker unions, and advocates have criticized the Department of Labor for allowing violations of the meager worker protections afforded in the guest worker program because of lax enforcement.

The advocacy organization Farmworker Justice says that the H-2A visa creates “a captive workforce that is deprived of economic bargaining power and the right to vote” for a union.

Based on interviews of guest workers by the Centro de Los Derechos de Migrantes (CDM – the Migrant Rights Center), they suffered violations of basic labor laws, such as not being paid wages owed to them or even the legal minimum wage. For example, 43 percent reported not being paid the wages promised.

In 2019, growers brought in 257,667 H-2A guest workers, an increase of more than 100,000 guest workers compared to 2014.
Big agricultural companies such as North Carolina Growers Association and Washington Farm Labor Association account for thousands of workers.

The State of Washington’s Employment Security Department (ESC) stopped collecting data needed to show statistically whether H-2A guest workers were displacing local farmworkers. ESC’s website states, “The agriculture employment and wage report will no longer be provided beginning with the May 2014 report due to a decline in funding.”

Growers paid local farmworkers $2 to $3 less per hour than H-2A guest workers to discourage local workers from seeking the jobs and satisfying the requirement that they were unable to meet their labor needs domestically.

Picking tomatoes in fields rented by a grower at the Camp Pendleton Marine Base near San Diego, longtime local farmworkers, Serafin Rincon, Santiago Bautista, and Rufino Zafra were insulted and forced to work faster by their boss when they fell behind the much younger H-2A guest workers, and the boss yelled at them when they had to go to the bathroom. Bautista had a heart attack at work but the foreman would not allow him to stop working.

Guest workers are forced to work at an inhuman pace. Growers are allowed by law to put production quotas into the recruitment contracts in which growers can fire workers for not meeting their quotas, resulting in the workers being deported.

When it comes to housing guest workers, a legal requirement for growers, their living conditions are deplorable. They are crowded together in barracks, many of which have bed bugs, cockroaches, lack of hot water, and other unsanitary conditions. They are not allowed to leave the farms to go to a store.

When a H-2A blueberry picker in Sumas, Washington, died in 2017 after a supervisor forced him to continue working even though he reported that he was sick, 60 of his H-2A coworkers protested against unsafe living conditions, threats, and being charged for meals of food that had gone bad by staying in the labor camp instead of going to work. The supervisors fired the strikers for insubordination and said that H-2A regulations do not allow for workers to engage in such concerted activity.

“If you get deported for collective activity that’s basically saying you have no enforceable labor rights,” said Lynn Dodson, former secretary treasurer of the Washington State Labor Council.

Guest workers face an increased risk from coronavirus. They are still living crowded together and growers are not testing for infection. Sued by farmworker unions and advocates for only issuing unenforceable guidelines on protecting H-2A workers, the State of Washington issued emergency regulations that were so lax that they allowed bunk beds.

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act, passed by the House of Representatives and awaiting a vote in the Senate, would facilitate the expansion of the use of the H-2A guest worker program. According to Bacon, if the bill passes, within a few years, an agricultural system in which half the workforce would consist of H-2A workers is not unlikely.

The Biden administration is facing the basic question of the direction for U.S. immigration policy. “The flow of many Mexican and Central American migrants across the border will either be increasingly imprisoned in a system of cheap and disposable labor by growers, or it will be integrated into families and communities able to fight for rights, legal status, unions, and a better standard of living,” concludes Bacon.

– by Abel Dominguez-Galindo