H2-A guest workers from Mexico at a North Carolina Christmas tree farm. (Carolyn Cole )
The U.S. needs guest workers because Americans won’t work on farms -- at least, that's the argument made by many in agriculture as they negotiate over the controversial H-2A program, which allows farmers to bring in predominantly Mexican laborers to pick cotton and trim trees.
But labor advocates say there’s a group of Americans who have been trying to work on farms, only to be displaced by H-2A workers, who are less likely to complain about poor working conditions because their visas are dependent on their employers.
These Americans include Kareem Washington, 25, of Moultrie, Ga., who lost his job in retail and sought one in agriculture. The Labor Department referred him to a job harvesting squash near his home, and he was hired in April 2011. He started out setting up stakes for squash crops, making $9.12 an hour.
GRAPHIC: A drop in the bucket
The job was physically challenging, but he liked it, he said. When it came time to harvest the squash, Washington went up and down the rows on the field, filling huge boxes with the produce. Until, that is, he was told he wasn’t making production quota and was fired.
Washington was surprised to lose his job: He’d been working hard, and although he didn’t have the experience of some of the H-2A workers on the farm, he thought he had matched their pace. The farm gave him only two days to make production quota before firing him, he said.
“I worked so hard, I felt like I [deserved] a permanent position,” he said. “I was planning on making a living off of this job.”
The next time he tried to work at a farm, the same thing happened, he said. He was a plaintiff in a lawsuit against one of the farms, Hamilton Growers, that settled in the fall. The grower agreed to pay $500,000 to workers and legal costs, to extend worker training from three days to seven, and to send letters to all former American employees from the past four years offering them jobs for the upcoming season. The grower also agreed to run a bus to the farm from a nearby farm, and to implement a process through which workers who have been fired can appeal.
It was a rare victory; although Americans are discriminated against, they rarely bring complaints to lawyers, said Leah Lotto, a staff attorney in the Farmworker Rights Division of the Georgia Legal Services Program.
“It's our understanding from our national network of guest worker advocates that discrimination itself is pretty rampant,” she said.
Some employers discourage U.S. workers from applying in the first place, said Lori Johnson, a lawyer with the Farmworker Unit of Legal Aid of North Carolina. They do that by requiring detailed references, pre-hire drug tests and criminal background checks, she said.
“These terms are, we believe, designed to discourage U.S. workers from applying and to deny employment to U.S. workers,” she said. We believe these job requirements are not applied equally to the foreign workforce and U.S. workers.”
Growers don’t require drug tests from Mexican workers, nor are they able to extensively check their backgrounds for criminal records, she said.
In one instance, tobacco farmers posted a requirement for any applicants to have experience hand-picking tobacco crops, according to a letter from David Griffith, a professor at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C. It’s unusual to have this experience, and listing it is potentially a violation of the law because farmers should be able to train workers for this type of harvesting, Griffith said.
This also happens in California, which has not historically been a hot spot for H-2A workers. But the H-2A program expanded even as the economy worsened, according to a complaint filed by the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation.
The foundation has found “a persistent pattern of application deficiencies – not identified or acted upon by [the U.S. Department of Labor] – and employment practices that violate the H-2A act and regulations,” according to the complaint.
In 2012, there were 3,089 H-2A workers in California, an increase from 1,598 in 2011. In the Imperial Valley, growers have used documented workers who live near the border to harvest broccoli, cauliflower and lettuce. But over the past three years, they have been displaced by H-2A workers who live in Yuma, Ariz., according to the complaint.
Farmers insist that they want to hire Americans, and that they wouldn’t go through all the hassle of hiring an H-2A worker if they could find Americans to do the jobs. Rusty Barr, the farmer featured in Sunday’s Los Angeles Times story, was excited to have two Americans apply to work on his Christmas tree farm this year. One is working out well, he said.
The second one worked for 15 minutes, helping drag cut Christmas trees 15 feet across a field to a road. Then, Barr said, he left.
“He said the work wasn’t for him,” Barr said.
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