Farmworkers in the News: Labor Shortages and Guestworker Programs

Grower’s claims of agricultural labor shortages and complaints about the H-2A program continue to be pervasive in the media. In one Washington article, grower representatives simultaneously complained that the H-2A program is “unworkable,” and that the program saved this year’s apple harvest. In fact, the Washington apple industry appears to be doing quite well this year. Growers are expecting this year’s harvest to be their second largest ever, and with apple prices higher than last year, growers should be able to increase wages to attract sufficient workers.

Arizona’s Yuma Sun published an editorial calling for a guestworker border commuter program. In Farmworker Justice’s letter to the editor responding to this editorial, Bruce Goldstein calls for a roadmap to citizenship for agricultural workers and explains that removing the housing requirement in the H-2A temporary agricultural guestworker program would be harmful to both workers and border communities and could result in homelessness. Yet, the Yuma Sun recently ran another article quoting a grower representative who is calling for a commuter guestworker program “for people who want to live in Mexico.” This argument ignores the fact that H-2A workers already have the option of remaining in Mexico to commute daily, and can turn down employer-provided housing if they choose to do so. The housing requirement is intended to ensure that workers who choose to stay near the farms are able to do so and have safe and secure housing. Many make this choice given the lengthy commutes and lines to cross the border and the fact that many workers come from internal Mexico and do not have homes near the border. These guestworker commuter proposals are simply an attempt by growers to lower their labor costs at the expense of worker protections.

Canada’s agricultural guestworker program: NOT a solution
Several articles have recently touted Canada’s guestworker program as a model for the United States. However, Canada’s agricultural guestworker program is far from a model program and instead shares many of the inherently flawed aspects of the H-2A program that lead to worker abuses.

In Other Farmworker News
A recent article highlights the positive role that the Farm Labor Organizing Committee’s (FLOC) contract with the North Carolina Grower’s Association has played in protecting workers in the H-2A guestworker program. For example, FLOC’s contract provides that workers have a right of return to work the following season, which greatly reduces the effects of employer retaliation against workers who stand up for their rights.

Mark Bittman’s New York Times article on California’s Central Valley looked at mass scale agribusiness as well as smaller sustainable farms. Refreshingly, his foodie article on local quality produce and sustainable agriculture did not forget workers and includes references to their low wages and frequent wage theft. In addition to addressing the effects of pesticides and environmental degradation on workers, Bittman highlights a local organic farm, lauding its business model for providing year-round work for “a full-time staff of 60, all of whom can qualify for vacations and a bonus pool.”

Farmworker Lawsuits
Farmworker Justice and Florida Legal Services settled a labor trafficking lawsuit filed against Bulls-Hit Ranch and Farm for recruiting homeless, drug addicted workers from shelters in Jacksonville, FL, supplying them with drugs and making them work in virtual servitude conditions. As FJ’s Weeun Wang notes, this case send an important message to employers that they are responsible for their workforce, “by holding the grower accountable for the labor violations and not allowing it to use the labor contractor as a shield against liability.”

Congratulations to the Southern Poverty Law Center for winning a record $11.8 million dollar judgment against Eller and Sons Trees, Inc. for gross underpayment of wages to H-2B guestworkers working in forestry as well as other violations of the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act.