Foreign Farm Workers Already Face Abusive Conditions. Now Trump Wants to Cut Their Wages.

Maurizio Guerrero

GREENFIELD, CA - APRIL 28: Farm laborers with Fresh Harvest wash their hands before work on April 28, 2020 in Greenfield, California. (Photo by Brent Stirton/Getty Images)

Pedro, a labor­er from Chi­a­pas, Mex­i­co, worked 13 hours a day pick­ing blue­ber­ries on a farm in Clin­ton, North Car­oli­na. He had no time off, except when it rained.

We had no Sun­days,” Pedro (a pseu­do­nym to pro­tect his iden­ti­ty after he breached his visa agree­ment) says in Span­ish. Work­ing from May to June under the H‑2A visa pro­gram for guest farm­work­ers, he saved only $1,500.

Accord­ing to Pedro, his work con­di­tions and pay­ment vio­lat­ed the con­tract he signed when he was recruit­ed by a mid­dle­man in Mex­i­co. Still, he could not quit his job. The H‑2A pro­gram requires guest farm­work­ers to work only for the employ­er or asso­ci­a­tion that hires them. 

Pedro was enti­tled to a $12.67 per hour wage with no over­time, accord­ing to the H‑2A pro­vi­sions for North Car­oli­na. How­ev­er, Pedro says he nev­er received more than $425 a week, or about $4.60 per hour.

They took away our pass­port as soon as we arrived,” Pedro explains. His employ­er tried to dis­suade Pedro and his work­mates from quit­ting the job. Still, he ran away, leav­ing his pass­port behind. 

Nev­er in my life [have I] worked this hard, not in Mex­i­co City or back in the fields in Chi­a­pas,” Pedro says. Undoc­u­ment­ed and with no offi­cial iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, Pedro now works at a con­struc­tion site in Geor­gia. All the oth­er guys stayed in the farm,” he says. They are afraid of being deport­ed. They don’t want to get in trouble.”

Pedro’s sto­ry is all too com­mon. The wage pro­vi­sions in the H‑2A pro­gram are rou­tine­ly” vio­lat­ed, accord­ing to the Wash­ing­ton, D.C.-based non­prof­it Farm­work­er Jus­tice, and, as a recent Cen­ter for Amer­i­can Progress report put it, the lack of labor pro­tec­tions for for­eign farm­work­ers like Pedro are already par­tic­u­lar­ly dan­ger­ous.” The H‑2A pro­gram has led to so much abuse of work­ers that many liken it to mod­ern-day slav­ery.

Now, things could get even grim­mer, as the Trump admin­is­tra­tion is propos­ing to reduce the statu­to­ry pay rate for H‑2A work­ers, just months ahead of the pres­i­den­tial elections. 

Work­ers’ wages are already extreme­ly low by any mea­sure, even when com­pared with sim­i­lar­ly sit­u­at­ed non­farm work­ers and work­ers with the low­est lev­els of edu­ca­tion,” an Eco­nom­ic Pol­i­cy Insti­tute (EPI) report found in April.

Wage cuts

North Car­oli­na is among the top recruiters of H‑2A guest work­ers in the Unit­ed States. The state, like the rest of the coun­try, has grown increas­ing­ly depen­dent on this labor force. Nation­wide, there has been a five­fold increase in the num­ber of H‑2A visas approved since 2005, climb­ing to 258,000 in 2019. Most of these work­ers are Mex­i­cans or Mexican-Americans. 

The grow­ing reliance on H‑2A visa farm­work­ers is often linked to a short­age of local labor, even among the undoc­u­ment­ed pop­u­la­tion that com­pris­es at least half of the U.S. agri­cul­tur­al work­force. The real­i­ty could be more problematic.

H‑2A visa hold­ers are seen by employ­ers as very pro­duc­tive. Employ­ers often say they are bet­ter work­ers than the locals, but it has noth­ing to do with their per­for­mance,” accord­ing to Bruce Gold­stein, pres­i­dent of the farm­work­ers’ rights group Farm­work­er Jus­tice. It has to do with the fact that the H‑2A visa work­ers are not free.”

Even undoc­u­ment­ed work­ers, who are not nec­es­sar­i­ly tied con­trac­tu­al­ly to their employ­ers in the same way as H‑2A work­ers, have more legal recours­es to obtain com­pen­sa­tion if they claim work­place abuse, accord­ing to Gold­stein. H‑2A work­ers are exclud­ed from the Migrant and Sea­son­al Agri­cul­tur­al Work­er Pro­tec­tion Act (MSPA), the main labor law that pro­tects farm­work­ers. That’s why, he says, H‑2A guest work­ers are very desir­able by employers.”

To sat­is­fy the agri­cul­ture indus­try’s desire for guest work­ers, the Trump admin­is­tra­tion, con­tra­dict­ing its anti-immi­gra­tion stance, relaxed the rules around H‑2A hir­ing and exempt­ed farm­work­ers from a broad ban on for­eign labor dur­ing the Covid-19 pandemic.

Now, the U.S. Depart­ment of Labor is con­sid­er­ing pub­lish­ing changes that would recal­cu­late guest work­ers’ wages. Accord­ing to Gold­stein and to pub­licly post­ed infor­ma­tion, the changes could come as ear­ly as August.

Instead of using a labor mar­ket sur­vey, the pro­pos­al would allow farms to hire work­ers at an arbi­trar­i­ly low­er wage rate,” accord­ing to Farm­work­er Jus­tice. In Flori­da, for exam­ple, the $11.71 per hour wage would be cut by $3.15.

Though Con­gress could stop these changes, the Repub­li­can-led Sen­ate makes this a remote pos­si­bil­i­ty. Anoth­er option is tak­ing the admin­is­tra­tion to court, although the out­come would be far from cer­tain, Gold­stein explains. 

The only ratio­nal expla­na­tion for low­er­ing the wages of H‑2A farm­work­ers right now is cor­po­rate greed and unques­tion­ing sub­servience to agribusi­ness on the part of the Trump admin­is­tra­tion,” accord­ing to the EPI report. 

If imple­ment­ed, the wage cut would come even as farm own­ers received as much as $23.5 bil­lion in fed­er­al aid due to the pandemic.

The new guide­lines would mean that work­ers deemed essen­tial” and expect­ed to keep work­ing amid the pan­dem­ic, would risk their lives for even less mon­ey and no man­date for employ­ers to pro­vide them with Covid-19 protections.

Unfree labor

Vio­la­tions of the H‑2A visa hold­ers’ rights are ram­pant and sys­temic,” accord­ing to a 2015 Farm­work­er Jus­tice report. The Depart­ment of Labor fre­quent­ly approves ille­gal job terms in the H‑2A work­ers’ con­tracts,” its find­ings show.

Five years after the report, the guest work­ers’ con­di­tions remain unchanged, accord­ing to Gold­stein. They are sim­i­lar to the ones under the Bracero Pro­gram — through which mil­lions of Mex­i­can farm­work­ers labored in the US from 1942 to 1964 — which was ulti­mate­ly ter­mi­nat­ed because of its noto­ri­ous abus­es, includ­ing wage theft, accord­ing to the report.

Even when employ­ers com­ply with the con­tract oblig­a­tions, H‑2A farm labor­ers are among the nation’s low­est-paid work­ers. The Covid-19 pan­dem­ic has made their jobs even more dan­ger­ous.

Farm own­ers are not man­dat­ed by the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment to pro­vide pro­tec­tive equip­ment or enforce social dis­tanc­ing in often over­crowd­ed and unsan­i­tary hous­ing facil­i­ties, despite the risks to for­eign work­ers’ health, accord­ing to Anna Jensen, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the non­prof­it North Car­oli­na Farm­work­ers Project. (State guide­lines vary across the country.)

It’s not unusu­al that labor­ers are only giv­en one option to buy food, reg­u­lar­ly over­priced, or that work­ers can­not receive vis­i­tors, says Jensen. It’s also com­mon that the employ­ers do not reim­burse H‑2A work­ers for trav­el­ing to the U.S., she adds, a prac­tice that is very often ille­gal.

The vio­la­tions often start in the hir­ing process. Two of the for­mer deputy direc­tors of the North Car­oli­na Grow­ers Asso­ci­a­tion, the largest recruiter of H‑2A farm­work­ers in the state, plead­ed guilty in 2015 of fraud relat­ed to the pro­gram. Anoth­er infa­mous North Car­olin­ian farm­work­er recruiter, Craig Stan­ford Eury Jr., also plead­ed guilty to con­spir­a­cy to defraud the U.S.

Many H‑2A work­ers, who aspire to return to the U.S. farms in the fol­low­ing sea­sons, do not men­tion their mis­treat­ment for fear of being black­list­ed by employ­ers. But even if they want­ed to, fil­ing com­plaints is real­ly dif­fi­cult,” Jensen says.

The North Car­oli­na Depart­ment of Labor oper­ates a com­plaint hot­line, open only from 8:00 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. Mon­day through Fri­day, mak­ing it not very acces­si­ble” for many migrant work­ers, accord­ing to Jensen. Twelve to 14-hour work­days, six or sev­en days a week, make fil­ing a claim vir­tu­al­ly impos­si­ble for guest farmworkers.

The H‑2A is an inher­ent­ly abu­sive pro­gram,” Gold­stein says. It prac­ti­cal­ly assures employ­ers that even work­ers who do not stand the poor treat­ment will not com­plain, even when their pass­ports are tak­en away, which could be con­sid­ered an act of slav­ery or peon­age, accord­ing to Goldstein. 

If the Trump admin­is­tra­tion fol­lows through with its plans, work­ers like Pedro could be forced to labor under these con­di­tions while tak­ing home even less mon­ey than they already make.

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