From BenningtonBanner.com, Rep. Carolyn Partridge, 24 Apr 2011.
[Bennington, VT} — One of the factors that helps make Vermont agriculture successful is the use of Jamaican contract laborers who enter the United States on the H2-A visa program. The H2-A program is administered by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in consultation with the U.S. Department of Labor.
The House Agriculture Committee recently became aware of the fact that many of the farmers and orchard owners who employ H2-A labor have had increasing difficulty navigating the application process with more hoops to jump through and requirements to meet.
This may be the result of two issues that have gained national attention over the last few years — unemployment and immigration/undocumented workers. It is important to recognize that the H2-A program affects neither. H2-A workers are fully documented and the farmers and orchard owners who want to use H2-A workers have to go through a rigorous bureaucratic process to prove that U.S. workers are not being displaced.
In order to qualify, farmers and orchard owners need to demonstrate a need for these workers and that U.S. labor is not available. They have to advertise for help in Florida, Mass., and New York newspapers, spending many hundreds of dollars, usually with no results. Jamaican laborers cannot displace U.S. workers and there is a requirement that they be treated identically, so there is no economic benefit to employing Jamaicans. One orchard owner in Cornwall makes it a policy to hire any American who asks for a job.
Unfortunately, he reports that most American workers do not come back after their first day of work.
Many of these Jamaican men have been coming back to the same Vermont farms/orchards for years, sometimes decades, and the farmers who employ them report that they become part of their families. Farmers have even been known to visit their workers during the winter months in Jamaica. Our Jamaican work force is hard-working and highly skilled and without them, many Vermont farms and orchards would be in trouble.
This bureaucratic problem seems to exist with just the Jamaican workers so the Agriculture Committee has been trying to discover why that is.
What has become apparent to us is that there is a non-profit governmental organization called the Jamaican Central Labour Organisation that promotes employment standards and provides support services to the Jamaican workers. Some of the services provided include advising workers of employment conditions and welfare benefits, meeting workers at the U.S. port of entry and assisting them in clearing customs, visiting housing and work sites and assisting in the resolution of work-related or domestic disputes, and ensuring that workers receive proper medical attention while they are here.
The JCLO also makes several deductions from the workers’ pay for a medical plan, a retirement plan, a savings account that family members can withdraw from in Jamaica, and an administrative fee that helps the JCLO defray the costs of the services they render to the workers. None of the H2-A workers from other countries have an organization that provides similar services for them.
It seems that a misconception may be at the heart of the problem. The U.S. Department of Labor regulations for the H2-A program specify that no entity may be paid a recruiting fee. The JCLO maintains that they don’t do recruiting, that that job is done by the Jamaican Department of Labour. However, the USDOL disagrees, so in order to come to the U.S., all of our valuable Jamaican laborers had to agree to come without any of the above mentioned benefits that the JCLO provides, including health care. As a result, additional burdens that would have been previously covered, may fall on our already taxed social services system.
Our congressional delegation has been very helpful and has, in the past, intervened to solve these problems, which we greatly appreciate. It is our hope that this situation can be cleared up once and for all. We understand that all workers that were applied for for this year’s growing season have been approved and have arrived, but there is concern that the same problems may be encountered with the apple pickers who will arrive later. The House Agriculture Committee has been working on a resolution to express our concern about the situation.
This summer when you see our Jamaican guests in town or at the supermarket, please know that these men are hard-working, highly skilled laborers who are sought after by our farms and orchards. They leave their families in Jamaica to come here to earn money and to help us with the difficult work that Americans don’t seem to want to do. Without their help, Vermont agriculture would suffer and we are thankful that we can continue to use their services.
Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham, is chairwoman of the House Agriculture Committee.