New Research Shows Guestworkers and Undocumented Workers Both Vulnerable in Workplace: Highlights the Need for Immigration Reform that Provides True Immigration Status with a Path to Citizenship

Research presented at a recent panel organized by the Economic Policy Institute underscores the need for comprehensive immigration reform with a path to lawful permanent resident status (LPR) and eventual citizenship. The research demonstrates the precarious position in which both temporary workers and undocumented workers find themselves in the workplace, where they lack bargaining power due to their vulnerable immigration status and dependency on their employers. Legal status with a path to citizenship can help farmworkers and other workers improve wages and prevent the exploitation of undocumented workers and guestworkers by unscrupulous employers (collective bargaining agreements, like those negotiated by the farm labor union FLOC on behalf of H-2A guestworkers, can empower workers to combat the effects of the H-2A visa’s restricted status).

All Immigration Status Is Not Equal: Temporary Legal Status Is Not Sufficient to Improve Wages

For those who are familiar with the challenges facing undocumented workers and guestworkers, the findings from the research are not surprising. According to research by Lauren Apgar, a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of Indiana Bloomington, both temporary workers and undocumented workers earn significantly less than LPRs. On average, H-2 workers and undocumented workers earn 11% less than LPRs. The research also demonstrated that despite the fact that temporary workers have work authorization, there is no statistical difference between their wages and the wages of undocumented workers.

With regard to H-2A workers specifically, Apgar’s research found that with variables such as trip characteristic and human capital held constant, undocumented workers and H-2A workers earned about 26 to 30 percent less than LPRs; with H-2A workers’ total monthly earnings closer to those of undocumented workers than to LPR earnings. This changed somewhat when factoring in the value for the free housing provided to H-2A worker by their employers. With the addition of an added value for housing, wages for H-2A workers were closer to the wages for LPR workers. The research did not, however, factor in the recruitment costs many H-2A workers pay for the opportunity to work in the United States. Despite the fact that such fees are illegal under the H-2A program, the payment of recruitment fees is rampant. The desperation many H-2A workers feel to repay the recruitment fee debt increases their vulnerability on the workplace. 

In examining factors contributing to lower pay for temporary and undocumented workers, the research notes that despite temporary workers’ legal status, they lack mobility in the workplace and their ability to work in the United States is tied to the employer who brought them into the United States. Because H-2A workers are dependent on their employer for their continued employment, housing, and legal status in the United States, they are less likely to raise concerns or complaints for fear of losing their employment and legal status. Specifically, Apgar notes that “both legal status groups are subject to employer exploitation because they fear retaliation and deportation, and employers take advantage of this fear to pay them the lowest possible wage.”

These findings are significant as we experience a dramatic growth in the H-2A program. The H-2A program, which has no limit on the number of H-2A visas that can be issued per year, more than doubled in size in recent years. The program increased over 140%: from about 48,000 worker positions certified in FY 2005 to about 117,000 worker positions certified in FY 2014. From FY 2013 to FY 2014, several states saw significantly large increases in program usage, including an increase of 17% in North Carolina, 35% in Florida, 44% in California, and 45% in Washington. Despite loud employer complaints about the “bureaucracy” of the H-2A program (really their barely veiled dislike of DOL oversight and the program’s minimal worker protections, as well as housing and transportation costs), the broken immigration system combined with the opportunity to select and control their workforce is enticing more and more growers to the H-2A program.

The H-2A program is designed to protect the wages and working conditions of U.S. workers but Apgar’s research points to major structural flaws in the H-2A program and raises important questions about the adequacy of its protections. These findings should also be important considerations as Congressional members yet again propose harsh one-sided guestworker programs as the way forward on our broken immigration system and agriculture.

The ability to pay unauthorized and H-2A workers significantly less than LPRs leads to lower wages for all workers in a workplace that is largely dependent on undocumented workers. Research presented by Tom Hertz of the Economic Research Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture highlights this point. Hertz examined the National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS) data and found that unauthorized workers earn 4% less than LPRs and 8% less than naturalized citizens. While the wage data for undocumented and LPR workers shows a smaller wage differential than in Apgar’s research, this can be explained by the fact that Hertz controlled for other characteristics which impact wages, such as years of education and English-language skills. While it may seem surprising that the wage differential for undocumented workers and those who are LPRs and naturalized workers is not greater; one factor may be the fact that the presence of so many undocumented workers has saturated the workforce and resulted in a wage depression that is felt across the industry. Furthermore, despite employers’ claims of labor shortages in the fields, conditions are so bad for all farmworkers that there is little upward pressure on their wages—if there really were a dire labor shortage, the first economic indicator one would expect to see is rapidly increasing wages paid to workers.

Impact of Legalization on Farm Labor Force: Many Agricultural Workers Will Remain in Agriculture after Employment Authorization

Hertz also examined the impact of legalization on the workforce. Hertz found that most workers who legalized in 1986 under IRCA remained in agriculture after legalization, despite stagnant wage rates. IRCA’s primary impact was to accelerate the departure of the 20% of workers who likely were planning to leave agriculture anyway. This research belies the widespread assumption that most agricultural workers will leave agriculture if given a legal status.

The study of farmworker employment post-IRCA provides a rough guide to how today’s farm labor supply would respond to the legalization of a portion of unauthorized farmworkers. Hertz noted that, for instance, if half of current farmworkers are unauthorized and half of them are granted employment authorization through DAPA/DACA, this may cause farm labor supply to decline by 5% over 5 years. This is a far cry from the belief that legal protections will leave farmers with “nothing to replace [their workers] with.”1

In conclusion, the research demonstrates the need for immigration reform that provides a path to citizenship—rather than temporary and contingent legal statuses that facilitate exploitation and abuses—and thus highlights the problems that a guestworker approach presents.

See also this article from In These Times:

 1Dan Charles, Farmers Fear Legal Status for Workers Would Lead Them off the Farm, NPR (Feb. 26, 2015)