This week NPR aired a story "Guest Workers, Legal Yet Not Quite Free, Pick Florida's Oranges” that featured an H-2A worker, otherwise known as an agricultural guestworker.
In an interview at the beginning of the program, a grower of Florida citrus said that his farm started using H-2A workers to avoid competing for workers who were asking for a higher wage. The farm didn’t want to pay an extra nickel a box that farmworkers asked for and that a competing grower was offering. This frank statement reveals the fundamental problems with the temporary foreign worker program.
The guestworkers don’t ask for wage increases. Why? Because as the story reveals, guestworkers don’t have the freedoms that we take for granted in this country.
H-2A guestworkers may only work for the one employer that obtained a visa for them. When the job ends, they must return to their homeland. If they want to return to the US, they must hope that the employer will invite them back and apply for a visa. The workers have no independent ability to apply to the US government for an H-2A visa. Technically, they hold a “non-immigrant” status. And the law refers to these human beings as being “imported” by employers. As if they are commodities.
In this restricted, temporary status, the workers will not usually challenge unfair or illegal conduct, or even ask for a raise. They feel lucky to have the job. And why not? Usually, the wage is a lot higher than they would make in their own country. So they will often work to the limits of human endurance. Growers will say how “reliable” they are, but what is really going on in many cases is that these workers are under such pressure that they are extraordinarily productive.
The story discusses the issue of who is better (or worse) off, a guestworker or an undocumented immigrant worker. That’s a time-honored debate. The guestworkers are taken advantage of and so are undocumented workers, but the undocumented workers are, in a sense, free. They can change jobs, though that is often difficult.
The story does a good job of demonstrating the lack of economic freedom in guestworker programs. There is also a fundamental lack of political freedom. No matter how many years the guestworkers are brought back to the U.S., they never earn the right to become an immigrant or a citizen. Guestworkers don’t vote. But the employers vote. And the employers give campaign contributions. And the employers lobby Congress and the Administration to lower the required wage rates and other obligations under the H-2A program.
The H-2A program is supposed to prevent employers from undermining the wages and working conditions of U.S. farmworkers’ job terms. But the law and regulations generally don’t work. The lack of economic and political bargaining power on the part of the guestworkers is just too much to overcome.
We are a nation of immigrants, not a nation of guestworkers. The workers we need in this country – and we need farmworkers – should be given the opportunity to be immigrants and citizens. Because the majority of farmworkers are undocumented immigrants, Congress should pass immigration reform that creates such opportunities and grants farmworkers the economic and political freedoms on which this country was founded.