Guest Worker Program, H-2A, Visas

A Disposable Work Force: Farm Worker Advocates Push for Agricultural Worker Protections

From EHSToday.com, Laura Walter, 9 Sept 2011.

A new report published by the advocacy organization Farmworker Justice criticizes the H-2A temporary guest work visa program, claiming it makes agricultural workers vulnerable to poor working conditions. Farm worker advocates argue that to improve these conditions, foreign agricultural workers should be able to seek legal immigration status.

The report, “No Way To Treat a Guest: Why the H-2A Agricultural Visa Program Fails U.S. and Foreign Workers,” outlines why this visa system, which “allows agricultural employers to hire foreign guest workers on temporary work visas to fill seasonal jobs,” is flawed and exposes workers to abuse.

“This agricultural guest worker program reveals itself to be inherently problematic,” said Bruce Goldstein, president of Farmworker Justice, in a Sept. 7 press call. “The workers brought in as guest workers are treated as non-immigrants who are not permitted to switch employers, can only work for the employer who got them the job and, if they want to come back the following year, must hope that the employer will invite them back.”

Of the 2 to 2.5 million farm workers in the United States, approximately 50-70 percent are undocumented, Goldstein said. These temporary, undocumented workers do not have the option to achieve legal immigration status under the H-2A program.

“The H-2A system, in creating this restrictive, non-immigrant status, causes the guest workers to really be fearful of retaliation if they challenge unfair or illegal job conditions,” explained Goldstein.

According to the report, the H-2A guest worker program:

  • Does not provide adequate protection against the exploitation of guest workers;
  • Drives down wages and working conditions for domestic workers;
  • Creates an incentive for employers to prefer guest workers over domestic workers;
  • Creates an atmosphere in which employers are able to violate the rights of workers in “rampant and systemic” ways;
  • Fosters abuse in the recruitment of foreign guest workers; and
  • Deprives farm workers of bargaining power and political influence.

Health and Safety Concerns

Goldstein told EHS Today during the press call that workers are further made vulnerable because the H-2A program does not require employers to provide health insurance, which workers cannot afford themselves. Temporary agricultural workers also typically do not have access to their own transportation, which means they must rely on their employers to take them to a doctor if they become ill or injured – something the employer may be reluctant to do for fear of increased workers’ compensation premiums.

Goldstein stressed that workers are generally “very reluctant” to report injuries and illnesses because they fear that the employer will have them deported if they are no longer able to work. Concerns surrounded being fired or deported also drives these workers to “work really hard and really fast,” he added.

“What you have is workers who are not pacing themselves at all. They are doing great damage to their bodies,” he explained. “That’s one of the problems with the H2A program … It’s fundamentally about gaining a disposable work force and being able to replace anyone you dispose of immediately.”

Recommendations

The best solution, Goldstein said, would be “to give the undocumented farm workers the opportunity to earn legal immigration status leading to citizenship rather than relying on hundreds of thousands of future guest workers under the H-2A program or some other guest worker program.”

The report also issued the following recommendations:

  • The Department of Labor must increase its enforcement of the H-2A program to address violations and illegal job terms.
  • The U.S. government should exercise jurisdiction over H-2A recruitment in foreign countries, hold employers accountable for their actions and “shine a light on the dark world of labor recruitment.”
  • The Department of Labor should collaborate with stakeholders to educate and empower workers.
  • Wage rates and labor protections in the H-2A program should be strengthened, and the financial incentives for employers to prefer guest workers over domestic workers should be removed.
  • H-2A workers should be able to change employers and earn immigration status.
  • Congress should pass the Agricultural Jobs, Opportunities, Benefits, and Security Act (AgJoBs), a bipartisan effort that would “allow currently unauthorized farmworkers to earn legal immigration status by continuing to work in U.S. agriculture, make balanced changes to the H-2A program, and provide U.S. growers with a stable, productive, and decently-treated farm labor force,” according to the report.

“H-2A guest workers should be treated with dignity,” the report stated. “Ultimately, the people who put food on our tables should have the opportunity to become full-fledged immigrants on a path to citizenship.”

The report, which is based on interviews with former and current H-2A workers, can be viewed or downloaded at http://www.farmworkerjustice.org/ebook.html.

Source: EHSToday.com, “A Disposable Work Force: Farm Worker Advocates Push for Agricultural Worker Protections” by Laura Walter, 9 Sept 2011.

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