From HighCountryPress.com, Megan Northcote, 8 Dec 2011.
Much media attention has been aimed at Alabama’s new immigration law, which took effect this September. In North Carolina, however, legally hired H-2A seasonal guest workers continue to fill pressing labor needs on local farms.
Alabama’s law gives local police officers the right to question and detain anyone they suspect may be an undocumented immigrant, establishes harsh penalties for employers who hire undocumented workers and requires public schools to report children and parents who are not legal residents.
The law was touted as a measure to free up jobs for legal workers. But its passage reportedly led to thousands of immigrants fleeing the state, including many with legal status, and it was widely reported that many employers could not find workers to fill the jobs they left behind.
Harry Yates, former president of the North Carolina Christmas Tree Association and owner of Yates Christmas Trees and Landscaping in Boone, said that currently, undocumented farm workers are of little concern in North Carolina, which employs a larger percentage of documented workers than Alabama and the largest percent of H-2A workers in the U.S.
Yates, who’s worked his farm with the help of guest workers for 15 years, said he currently employs six local workers and six guest workers through the H-2A program.
More than half of the immigrant guest workers in North Carolina have been admitted legally with H-2A seasonal visas, which usually last for eight to 10 months, said Jim Hamilton, Watauga County Cooperative Extension director.
“Due to current and more stringent laws, I would say that there are less and less undocumented workers, as many have migrated back to Mexico to avoid persecution,” Hamilton said.
H-2A workers move from farm to farm, usually beginning in early March to help with crop planting, continue into harvest season during October and conclude their work in late December, often times on Western North Carolina Christmas tree farms.
North Carolina ranks first in the nation in the production of tobacco, Christmas trees and sweet potatoes, with these farms employing the majority of guest workers, according to a North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services report issued in 2008.
“Workers I have spoken to favor work in Christmas trees more than any other crops for the money,” Hamilton said. “Also, tobacco work and work in other crops in the summer is brutal [with the heat], while the weather here in the mountains is more pleasant.”
To qualify for H-2A employment, the guest worker may not take a seasonal agricultural employment position away from an able-bodied U.S. job candidate, nor may he or she affect the wages and working conditions of similarly employed U.S. workers.
For all H-2A workers, growers must provide housing, which is inspected by the Department of Labor, pay travel costs to and from their countries and guarantee workers 30 hours of work per week. H-2A workers are also required to receive this year’s adverse wage rate of $9.30 established by the government.
“Because of the tough economic situation in Mexico, guest workers make as much in one day here as one week in Mexico,” Hamilton said.
While guest workers might receive better pay in the U.S. than they would in other countries, the federal Fair Labor Standards Act excludes them from receiving overtime compensation, even when working 10- to 12-hour days, averaging 60 to 70 hours per week, Hamilton said.
Much controversy surrounds the misconception that guest workers are taking local residents’ jobs on farms, making tough economic times that much harder for local families.
“That’s absolute bologna,” Hamilton said. “North Carolina growers must post job openings locally first to prove there’s not enough local laborers to meet their needs before they can contract with guest workers.”
This year alone, North Carolina farmers were granted permission to hire 8,547 immigrant agricultural guest workers, by far the most of any state, representing more than 10 percent of the state’s agricultural workforce, according to the Employment Security Commission in North Carolina.
From years working with seasonal agricultural labor on North Carolina farms, Hamilton has observed that most guest workers in North Carolina are primarily male, either around 18 years old or in their early 50s, and come predominately from rural communities in Mexico.
Often times, Hamilton said, locals won’t accept agricultural jobs, which are too labor intensive and physically draining.
“If you’re a high school kid, would you rather wait tables with good tips or be out in the field working hard?” Hamilton said.
Although currently employing slightly more local workers than H-2A guest workers, Angela Wilson, a farm manager at Long Ridge Farms in Sugar Grove, agrees with the challenges in keeping a reliable local workforce on the farm.
“Lots of local people lasted two days because the work was too hard,” Wilson said. “I didn’t expect them to last long anyway. It’s a lot of hard work out in the elements. Hispanic workers hang in there a lot better and local folks tend to wimp out.”
While Wilson thinks Alabama’s new immigration law may have an impact on North Carolina in future years by frightening immigrants to return home, for now, she’s had no problem securing a dependable work crew of guest and local employees, who return to her farm every year.
On average, Hamilton said, about 70 percent of the same workers go back to the same farms annually.
“Growers have a close relationship with their workforce,” Hamilton said. “Growers can’t afford to screw over their workers. Latino communities are tight here [in the High Country]. In general, workers in this area are well treated.”
Stats on U.S. Farmworkers
According to a National Agricultural Worker Survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor in 2005, farmworkers nationally are characterized as:
- Most are younger than 31
- 80 percent are male
- Most have spouses or children who remain in their home countries
- 75 percent were born in Mexico
- 53 percent are undocumented, 25 percent are U.S. citizens and 21 percent are legal permanent residents
- Average annual income for a farmworker family of four is about $16,000
- 13 percent have completed high school, and the median highest grade completed is the sixth grade