The H-2A guest worker program has grown, but farmers and workers want it fixed

When Juan Antonio Lara signed on to work in the apple orchards of Washington State, he had big dreams. He hoped to earn enough money by working as a guest farm worker to build a house in his native El Salvador, so that his wife and four daughters would not have to live with his in-laws.

the guest worker program – also known as H-2A—allows U.S. farmers to hire foreign workers on a temporary basis when there are not enough qualified local workers available. Previously underutilized, it has tripled in size over the past decade as border security tightens and the promise of immigration reform dwindles. Most guest workers, known in Spanish as “contratados”, are Mexican men; Lara is one of a small number of people from Central America.

Although guest workers make up less than 10% of the U.S. agricultural workforce, the exponential growth of the program is likely to continue, as there is no annual cap on the number of temporary agricultural visas and most producer requests are approved. As the program has expanded, its inherent problems have become increasingly visible to workers and employers. Farmworkers and farmers want the program to continue to grow, but want it to be reformed, albeit in very different ways.

The Trump administration last year committed to streamlining and simplifying H-2A, worker advocates say, could strip the program’s already weak labor protections and oversight and lead to even more abuse and lawsuits. On Monday, the US Department of Labor published a long-awaited proposal to update the program. The nearly 500-page document includes changes such as requiring electronic filing of orders and applications, updating the methodology used to set the minimum wage for guest workers and tightening housing standards. Farmworker advocates say the proposed regulations would hurt both domestic workers and guest workers.

When Lara, 34, arrived last year for her first nine months at King Fuji Ranch in Mattawa, a small town in central Washington, he was impressed. He and three other men shared a comfortable room with heating, electricity and hot water, a far cry from the rudimentary housing of workers in El Salvador. And, according to the contract, he would earn at least $14 an hour.

Lara wasn’t earning as much as he had hoped, and her room was infested with bed bugs. Yet the dollar stretches a long distance in El Salvador. Back in his village, Lara pays off his debts and buys the property where he planned to build his house. But when he arrived in Mattawa earlier this year for a second season, the bedbugs were still there and the itchiness kept Lara awake at night. He said the producer pressured him and other workers to meet high production quotas. In mid-June, Lara and two dozen guest colleagues went on strike to protest working conditions.

Guest workers on strike at King Fuji Farm. (Photo by Edgar Franks)

“The local farm workers said they didn’t want to work for this employer. They told us… you are like prisoners. You can’t make a lot of money and you’re stuck there,” Lara said in a recent phone call. Representatives for King Fuji Ranch did not respond to multiple requests for comment on Lara’s claims.

The strike at King Fuji Ranch is one of several recent work stoppages organized by H-2A workers across the country. Additionally, workers have filed multiple lawsuits in recent years, alleging that some H-2A employers exploit them, steal their pay, provide substandard housing, or blackmail them into submission. Worker advocates say the program’s current structure creates a fundamental power imbalance and makes it ripe for abuse, as guest workers are tied to a single producer and their livelihoods (visas, housing, food, and wages) are entirely dependent. of this employer.

The extent of the problem is not known as workers tend to remain silent about abuses and rarely go on strike to avoid losing coveted jobs, said Edgar Franks, an organizer with the advocacy organization agricultural workers. Community to community in Washington who helped strikers at the King Fuji Ranch.

“Mexicans are lining up in their thousands in some communities to participate in this program. At first glance, it looks like a bargain. But when you dig deeper, with all the exploitation and abuse, it’s deceptive,” Franks said.

Producers don’t like the program either, but for very different reasons. They say it’s onerous, expensive, complex to navigate, and fraught with additional rules and reviews.

“We’re just dealing with more regulations and higher wages when we bring in foreign workers,” said Michael Azzano, a second-generation farmer in Omak, Wash., who grows 300 acres of organic apples, pears and cherries and conventional.

Faced with labor shortages, producers seek guest workers

In recent decades, American farmers have enjoyed abundant access to cheap foreign labor as millions of Mexicans have illegally crossed the southern border. But as border security tightened and Mexico’s economy boomed, the number of unauthorized Mexicans coming to the United States slowed to a trickle, evident in the sharp drop in apprehensions at the border. Instead, most of those apprehended in recent years are women and children fleeing violence in Central America.

At the same time, some domestic farm workers—about half of them do not have legal immigration status— have left agriculture for better opportunities in other industries, are afraid to work without papers or retired all together. As a result, farmers are competing for an ever-shrinking labor pool in raise wages and offer benefits and bonuses; some had to leave crops rotting in the fieldsswitch to other crops or invest in more automation for their operation.

Mexican farm workers plant onions by hand in the spring in upstate New York.

Mexican farm workers plant onions by hand in the spring in upstate New York.

Many producers are now turning to H-2A guest worker visas to ensure a stable workforce. Recruiters travel to remote Mexican villages and contact potential workers via Facebook and WhatsApp. In recent years, the program has grown by nearly 200%, from approximately 82,000 workers certified nationwide in 2008 for 242,000 in 2018according to Foreign Labor Certification Office at the US Department of Labor. During the first two quarters of 2019, nearly 124,000 the workers have already been certified.

The guest worker program is primarily favored by growers of labor-intensive specialty crops, or fruits, nuts, and vegetables, as they require a large number of seasonal workers. More than half of guest workers are found in just five states — Georgia, Florida, Washington, North Carolina and California — where specialty crops abound. Berry growers are top employers using H-2Afollowed by apple and melon farms.

In Washington, where H-2A use has increased by about 30 percent in the past year, the nonprofit Washington Agricultural Workers Association (WAFLA) aggressively pushed the program by helping producers cut red tape and apply for workers. In 2018, the association became the second largest employer of guest workers in the country; it now brings about 70 percent of the state’s H-2A workers to the United States. He also works with growers in Oregon, Idaho and California, and helps larger companies on a consulting basis with the application process.

A guest worker earns an F

For many guest workers, who often come from poor rural areas, the H-2A program is a boon. Lara said he struggled to make ends meet at home, fishing, farming and doing many odd jobs in Name of Jesus, his village in a mountainous region of El Salvador. On rare occasions, he earns up to $60 a day in his home country, but most of the time he only brings in a few dollars a day.

“In my country there is so much poverty and no work,” Lara said. “I wanted to find an opportunity to improve my life; I wanted to have hope.

However, his opportunity to work in the United States may soon be cut short, as he has struggled to meet productivity quotas imposed by the King Fuji Ranch, which currently hosts 200 guest workers. According to the contract, the workers must be paid by the hour, but his bosses expect them to do a certain amount of thinning and pruning quickly. “We are supposed to work by the piece [which typically has its own pay structure]but receive an hourly wage,” he said.

Striking guest workers at the King Fuji Ranch.  (Photo credit: Edgar Franks)

Striking guest workers at the King Fuji Ranch. (Photo credit: Edgar Franks)

King Fuji Ranch officials evaluate worker performance using letter grades; a company manager told workers that those who received a C, D or F will not be invited back, Lara said. He was given an F, according to his scorecard and said two-thirds of his crew hadn’t made the quota.

Pamela W. Robbins