A party built on guest workers
For more than a century, America has relied on temporary foreign workers to sow and harvest.
During World War I and World War II, labor shortages prompted the U.S. to open its doors to farmers from Mexico. The US government has assured that temporary workers will be treated fairly under the Bracero program, which is called “farm work” in Spanish. However, care was minimal and the program became little known due to the cruel working and accommodation conditions that contributed to its disappearance in 1964. Until then, Congress had set another path for temporary agricultural workers, which in 1986 Became an H-2A program.
For decades, the H-2A program has remained relatively small. However, the need for temporary farmers and ranches has declined over the last 10 years.
2011 Georgia has passed a comprehensive anti-immigration law requiring larger companies to use E-Verify to screen new tenants and impose severe fines and prison sentences on employees who use fake identities to gain employment. The law put pressure on Georgian farmers, who for a long time depended on undocumented immigrants and migrant domestic workers, to match blueberries, onions, peaches and other hand-picked crops.
Georgia is now the main destination for H-2A agricultural workers, along with Florida, North Carolina, California, Washington and Louisiana. Despite the president’s executive order, “Hire an American,” even Trump’s own vineyard in Virginia was approved to hire 23 H-2A workers last year. Industry lobbyists are urging Congress and the Trump administration to expand the program to include new types of agricultural workers and make it cheaper and easier.
The development of the program has led to cottages for visa agents and growers ’associations that will help farmers move through a complex application process. However, farmers are increasingly turning to farm contractors such as Sanchez to provide workers. Last year, the Department of Labor approved 1,900 applications for H-2A contractors, more than three times as many as in 2014. – allowing these contractors to bring more than 100,000 temporary farm workers into the United States, according to an analysis of federal data by NBC News. Many of the contractors are former farmers themselves.
“Theoretically, if contractors organize employees, that’s actually a good thing, because the contractor specializes in finding crews and allows employees to get more hours,” said Philip Martin, a labor economist at the University of California, Davis. But many of them are competing to provide workers at the lowest prices, Martin said, creating an incentive to sink into workers ’wages and housing due to a lack of resolute care. “It was not good for the Department of Labor to throw out the bad ones,” he said.
2017 In the end, Sanchez petitioned the Department of Labor to take 30 H-2A workers to Georgia to remove pine straw. This confirms that he tried to recruit U.S. workers as required by the program, but none of them applied. He promised that foreign workers would be paid either $ 10.62 per hour – the minimum H-2A worker in Georgia that year, according to the federal formula – or $ 1 per bundle of straw at the same minimum hourly wage; they will be housed in a motel that has already passed a government inspection, according to records obtained by NBC News.
On the contrary, employees said they spent a week at the motel – sharing beds, some were forced to sleep on the floor – before Sanchez moved them to a spire in Blackshear.
No one probably checked Sanchez: Under federal law, housing should only be transferred when an employer applies to bring H-2A workers to the United States. No further action is required when staff arrive – sometimes after a few months.
After visiting more than a dozen H-2A sites in Georgia and North Carolina in November, NBC News found government-approved farm workers’ housing crowded with insect and spider nests, as well as cardboard covering broken windows. An abandoned trailer in Georgia had gaps in the walls; wild cats were trapped in a kitchen cabinet, an H-2A employee was captured in a video sent to Georgia Legal Services, a group of lawyers representing agricultural workers. “Rats are better than us,” the employee said in a video.
The Department of Labor conducts unscheduled inspections of H-2A workplaces across the country, including random housing surveys; the agency’s Payroll and Hours Division can impose fines, force employers to reimburse salaries, ban employers from participating in the program, and refer cases to prosecute. However, enforcement resources are not lagging behind the rapid expansion of the program: according to federal data, wage and hourly staff numbers have been rising since 2016. Decreased 19 percent. And even when employers are barred from hiring more H-2A workers, which is quite uncommon, the bans are usually only temporary – from one to three years.
State supervision is also limited. Through federal grants, government agencies help H-2A employers comply with program requirements and perform the housing inspections required before employees relocate. Despite the rapid growth of the H-2A program, federal funding for these government agencies has not increased, and according to records released during 2019. claim to the Department of Labor, some of them received less than three years earlier. Georgia’s federal funding fell 15 percent, the state labor department confirmed.
Some states, such as North Carolina and California, also have their own standards and inspection systems for farmers ’housing, and they take action against H-2A employers who break the rules. However, others, including Georgia, have some additional rules and limited enforcement rights.
Last year, the Trump administration acknowledged some of the “unsafe and unsanitary” conditions faced by H-2A workers. 2019 In July, the administration issued a lengthy proposal aimed at improving housing standards and increasing the bonds that contractors must receive as proof that they can pay employees.
However, the administration’s plan, which the Department of Labor plans to complete next month, will also ease the rules for employers who have complained that the H-2A program is too slow, expensive and complicated. Government agencies would be allowed to conduct fewer home inspections, with employers self-certifying. Meanwhile, staff would be responsible for a larger share of their inbound travel costs; some would be paid less under the new federal formula for calculating the minimum H-2A wage, others more.
Some lawmakers are trying to steer the program in a new direction. Last year, Democrat-controlled houses passed a bilateral law on the agricultural workforce, which would provide for a path for stateless immigrants and H-2A workers. The bill would also include 20,000-year H-2A visas, which are currently unlimited but only seasonal.
But the chances of Congress adopting any model of immigration are slim: the country is hit by a pandemic, and the presidential election will only take place in a few months.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration continued to keep its doors open to H-2A workers, temporarily easing visa requirements, allowing employers to recruit guest workers more quickly and keep them in the U.S. for longer. “The short administration is working to keep our farmers and growers competitive, while ensuring that American workers have more opportunities and higher pay,” the White House report said, adding that problems with the health, safety and employment of H-2A workers “could be identified and resolved “.
While unemployment has risen to its peak since the Great Depression, industry leaders say farmers are still struggling to find enough workers to sow and harvest – hard, manual labor, usually in remote locations.
Labor supporters fear that the shrinking American economy could pose an even greater risk to these guest workers. While demand for products sold in grocery stores remained high, the pandemic dealt a severe blow to many farms supplying restaurants, cafes and other establishments.
This has increased pressure on growers using the H-2A program to cut costs – and this could ultimately mean cuts in wages, housing and other labor costs, said Michael Hancock, a civil rights attorney at Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll. and a labor law firm. Hancock was an official in the Labor Department of President Barack Obama’s administration.
“Who are the powerless people in this process, in the weakest position of negotiation and negotiation?” Hancock said. “Workers.”