Q: What is the Guest Worker program and why is it in the news today?
A: The Guest Worker Program, also called H2A, provides a way for foreign workers to receive a visa for temporary farm work in the US. About 200,000 Mexican workers were provided visas as guest workers under this program in the US in 2017, helping fill a critical gap in farm labor. It is controversial because union organizers oppose the program believing that the shortage of workers will help them in organizing unions. Union organizing activity in Washington state is receiving national and international attention because of accusations of abuse of farmers carried by numerous media outlets and the use of lawsuits and boycotts against farms and prominent brands.
Q: Is this a new program?
A: No, the first guest worker program, called the Braceros Program, was put in place by Executive Order in 1942. As farm workers left to join the armed forces, farmers feared loss of crops and the Braceros program helped fill the gap with Mexican workers in selected areas. In 1952 the Immigration and Nationality Act established an H2 visa for temporary unskilled workers. In 1986 the current law established an H2A visa for farm workers and an H2B visa for non-farm workers. Both provide for legal, temporary immigration for specific jobs such as seasonal harvests for farmers.
Q: Is today’s H2A or Guest Worker Program another Braceros Program?
A: Union organizers like to refer it as “Braceros” because that program earned a bad reputation due to farmer abuse of it and lax enforcement of its rules. Today, it is different. The Guest Worker program involves very significant application, reporting and enforcement requirements. This serves to reduce valuable opportunities for workers and limit its usefulness to farmers. Referring to today’s program as “Braceros” is an intentional effort to link it to a long-past program with a troubled history. For more information on the Braceros Program history: http://braceroarchive.org/about
Q: How many guest workers participate in this program?
A: Capital Press reported on November 13, 2017: The U.S. Department of Labor approved 200,049 H-2A-visa foreign guestworkers for U.S. farms in fiscal year 2017, up 20.7 percent from 165,741 in 2016.
Quoting Frank Gasperini Jr., executive vice president of the National Council for Agricultural Employers in Washington, D.C., the report stated: "H-2A workers are about 10 percent of the nation’s more than 2 million seasonal ag workers, he said. That’s more than doubled in the last five years, he said. Year-round or permanent ag worker are about another 500,000, he said."
Washington state has seen a significant growth in guest workers: The latest DOL numbers show Florida leading in 2017 H-2A workers at 25,303, up 12.6 percent. Georgia is second at 23,421, up 11.7 percent. North Carolina is third at 20,713, up 10.4 percent.
Washington is fourth at 18,535, up 9.3 percent. California is fifth at 15,232, up 7.6 percent. After that, Louisiana, Kentucky, New York, Michigan and Arizona round out the top 10 states.
“Florida, Washington and Michigan see higher growth because whole crops are starting to shift in a big way to H-2A because of lesser migrant movement,” Gasperini said.
Q: Why the rapid growth?
A: NPR explains: Employers say that the big jump in H-2A applications is partly because the worker shortage is getting worse. But it's also because farmers who hire lots of workers — and the workers themselves — are worried about the Trump administration's tougher enforcement of immigration laws. Many farm workers who live in the United States are citizens of Mexico or Central American countries and don't have legal authorization to be in this country.
The Capital Press article explained: “We have a continuing labor shortage and at some point it will reach a steeper incline because workers are getting older and H-2A is the only replacement,” Gasperini said.
ECONorthwest of Portland, Oregon conducted an analysis of the economic impact of guest workers in Washington state for wafla, and reported:
The agricultural sector in Washington has experienced a decline in available domestic labor supply in recent years. Traditional agricultural labor is "aging-out” (retiring), fewer of the next generation are seeking employment in agriculture, and many former agricultural workers have been assimilated into other sectors of the economy. Border enforcement and the lengthy process of gaining work authorization has discouraged many from looking for agricultural work in the U.S.
This has resulted in increased use of the H-2A program to ensure an adequate number of workers are available to tend to and harvest crops. This is especially true in labor-intensive fruit crops, where non-H- 2A employment has declined by 7 percent since 2010. Since that time, reliance on the H-2A program has increased across as growers look to fill the labor shortage.
Berry farms are the largest users of the guest worker program with about 21,000 guest workers involved in the berry harvest in 2017 according to the Capital Press.
Q: What labor union activity related to the guest worker program has occurred?
A: In summer of 2014, workers at Sakuma Brothers Farm in Burlington, Washington protested farmer treatment of workers. The strikes, protests, legal action and boycotts continued until the farm signed a union contract with the new Familias Unidas por la Justicia union in 2016. In early August 2017, workers protested at the Sarbanand blueberry farm near Sumas, Washington. In September 2017, workers protested at the Larson Fruit orchard in Quincy, Washington, then later at Stemilt farms. All actions were initiated and directed by Rosalinda Guillen of Community to Community, a worker center located in Bellingham, Washington. Also directly involved was Ramon Torres, the Sakuma farmworker recruited by Ms. Guillen to head the union Familias Unidas por las Justicia or FUJ. All targeted farms were using the H2A guest worker program.
Q: Community to Community is referred to as a “worker center.” What is a worker center?
A: The website workercenters.com explains: Leading worker centers are heavily supported by labor unions. Some have unionization of workforces as explicit goals. Labor unions enjoy the benefit of outsourcing their organization work to worker centers: Worker centers can engage in “organizational pickets” — protests to get a union recognized — of indefinite length, while labor organizations are restricted to 30-day pickets unless a petition for representation is filed.
Worker centers have proven an effective tool for union organizers enabling them to skirt labor laws. The activity of Community to Community and the support from organized labor it received in the Sakuma activities puts it in this category.
Q: What is the position of union leaders on the guest worker program?
A: ABCNews reported in 2013:
President Obama and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio both mentioned guest workers as part of their early outlines for immigration reform, but unions oppose what they've called "indentured" worker programs.
Further in the report:
While not mentioned in the outline, the [union position] subtext is that guest workers -- perhaps working without healthcare or other benefits -- could drive down salaries for native-born workers. Even existing guest worker programs should be reformed, according to the SEIU's Medina. Since guest workers are tied to a single business through their visas, "employers use that to threaten and control workers," he said.
A consistent argument of unions is that guest workers take work away from domestic workers, as stated in this Huffington Post story in 2013:
Critics of the guest worker program have argued that employers have relied too heavily on cheap foreign labor when millions of Americans are out of work.
Even in times of high unemployment, farmers have had a difficult time finding willing workers for farm jobs, while foreign workers see them as invaluable opportunities to earn significant income for their families.
Q: How does the guest worker program protect domestic workers?
A: First, the program is so onerous for farmers in its required costs, reporting and bureaucratic requirements that farmers turn to it only as a last resort. The option they usually face is to lose crops and a year of hard work or use guest workers. Second, the program itself requires that farmers hire domestic workers first, advertise extensively for them, and prove through the reporting requirements that they have done all they can to hire domestic workers. Only by proving that insufficient domestic workers are available will they be allowed to bring in guest workers. When a farmer employs guest workers and domestic workers, all are required to be paid according to the guest worker contract which specifies higher than minimum wage for all workers doing the same work.
Q: A union complaint is that guest workers are “indentured” workers. Doesn’t the requirement that they work only for the farmer who hires them give substance to this concern?
A: Provisions in the guest worker program are designed to ensure that the worker is returned to his or her home and does not use the program for illegal immigration. The farmer is responsible for housing and transportation and could not meet that obligation if the worker was able to seek other work. As the costs of the program are high and the farmer pays for the transportation to the farm and for housing and other requirements, the requirement that the worker meet his or her obligation to the employer is very reasonable. The accusations of indenture are intended to suggest that the farmer can abuse workers with pay, working conditions and treatment, but this abuse is prevented by the strict requirements and enforcement as well as the desire of the farmer to recruit and maintain a consistent workforce.
Q: Activists say they are working for improved pay for workers, what is wrong with that?
A: In Washington state farmers paid on average about $200 per day in labor costs including wages and benefits. The same workers when working Mexican farms are paid the minimum wage of $11 per day. The nearly twenty times difference in pay translates into a much improved ability to provide for their families, such as the ability to purchase homes as the workers themselves report. By pressuring farmers and lawmakers against the guest worker program, activists are reducing these very valuable income opportunities for these workers whose options are limited.
Q: If American farmers paid more, wouldn’t they get enough workers?
A: Increasing pay substantially is not an option because of the already high labor costs compared to foreign producers. The sad fact is that relatively few non-immigrant workers have any interest in farm work. So pay increases would have little impact on the shortage of workers. As it is what US farmers currently pay is putting them at a severe competitive disadvantage. US farmers compete in a global marketplace against foreign producers who pay far less for labor. Mexican imports of berries have increased by 500% in ten years and some US farmers are relocating their farms to Mexico because of the vast differences in labor costs and regulations. Washington state farmers, particularly berry farmers, are losing ground against foreign competitors not just from Mexico, but Serbia, Chile, Peru and even China. In China, for example, much farm work is done by migrant workers where the average pay is $100 per month, far less than even Mexico.
Q: Wouldn’t unions be a good thing for workers?
A: Farmworker unions have proven to be unnecessary and unhelpful for workers. The New York Times reports that less than one percent of the California agricultural work force is now represented by a union. The story of the FUJ union and Sakuma provides an indication. While union activists tout the union contract as a major victory, the wages negotiated are actually less than what the workers would have been paid as guest workers. This is before union dues are collected from workers. Union leaders work hard to demonize employers as seen in the numerous false accusations, therefore undermining the extensive efforts of farmers to establish the positive relationships needed to ensure worker loyalty to the farm.
Q: How does this affect consumers?
A: It directly involves consumers because the shortage of workers and union activism is contributing to a dramatic increase in imported fruit. If current conditions prevail, US farmers will increasingly be lost and more of our food will be grown by foreign producers. Already American farmers are at a severe labor cost disadvantage with Mexican, Serbian, Chinese and South America growers paying 1/20 or even less of what American farmers pay in labor. This is the main reason why Mexican berry imports, for example, have grown by 500% in the past ten years according to the Wall Street Journal. This may not be a concern for consumers who appreciate the low cost of raspberries, blueberries and other fruit, but as the FDA recently reported, imported food has eight to ten times the pesticide residue than domestic food. In addition to paying far less for farmworker labor, foreign producers often do not have the same environmental and food safety protections. Consumers need to be aware of the country of origin of their food, as well as become more aware of how the union activism is contributing to the rapid increase of food imports.
Q: How is the union activism affecting farmers?
A: Farmers are increasingly concerned about the future for good reason. More and more regulation combined with a sharp decline in available labor causes great concern. The difficulties of using the guest worker program have discouraged farmers from taking advantage of the very willing guest workers. With the huge disparity in labor costs between American and foreign farmers, productivity through labor-saving technology is already critically important. Farmers see eliminating labor as much as possible as the only way forward in this environment. That serves again to limit opportunities for workers who have too few options already.
Q: Why are we not hearing the farmers’ perspective on this?
A: Farmers just want to farm. As a rule they are reluctant to engage in the kind of public controversy being generated by the activists. The worker protests are staged at times critical to harvest and since the harvest time is very limited, farmers need to minimize the disturbance to make sure they can harvest and sell their produce. Given the one-sided treatment by media reports on farmworker disturbances, farmers are more reluctant than ever to allow reporters on their farms and be interviewed. This adds to the problem as understandable as it might be. The Protect Farmworkers Now project is directly addressing the harm caused to workers by the union activism and efforts to eliminate the guest worker program, but in the process it will also help show that farmers care about their farm workers and provide invaluable work opportunities. This is the first farmer-directed program aimed at giving farmworkers, farmers and the farm community a public voice on this important issue.