labor As Food and Farmworkers Retreat, Guestworker Program Poised to Grow
, Michael Davidson
An unfamiliar car pulled into the labor camp of a blueberry farm in Southern New Jersey last month, and the four year-round farmworkers on site stopped what they were doing, went inside, and locked themselves in their rooms. Afraid of being deported by federal immigration agents operating with increased authority since President Trump signed an executive order to that effect in January, the workers stayed locked in their rooms overnight, forgoing dinner and talking to each other through the walls rather than in the open.
Though the strange car ultimately proved harmless, the workers later described the incident—and how fearful they felt—to Kathia Ramirez, the food justice coordinator of a farmworker support committee called El Comite de Apoyo a los Trabajadores Agrícolas, or CATA.
“The undocumented community is living in more fear and hiding under the shadows,” Ramirez said. “People should not live with the fear that they will be detained and not know what will happen to their families.”
While the ultimate effect of the anxiety remains to be seen, several likely possibilities exist, according to the people with whom Civil Eats spoke. As some foreign-born workers retreat from sight, farms and restaurants may have a hard time securing the staff they need to harvest crops and serve meals. Additionally, worker exploitation may proliferate as farmers rely increasingly on the H-2A agricultural guestworker program, known to place workers at a disadvantage, and as workers refrain from speaking up for themselves for fear of deportation.
The American food system relies heavily on the work of people born outside U.S. borders, many of whom are undocumented—and living on edge. In fact, 73 percent of the 2.5 million farmworkers planting, cultivating, and harvesting our crops each season are foreign-born, mostly in Mexico. And between 30 percent and 70 percent are undocumented, according to various sources.
On the service industry side, of the 12 million restaurant workers in the U.S., 1.3 million, or 11 percent, are undocumented, and an additional 2.6 million are foreign-born but documented, according to the Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United. In major metropolitan areas like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, closer to 45 percent of restaurant workers are undocumented, and 70 percent are foreign born, ROC United estimates.
Since deportations have picked up—targeting more varied populations than the Obama administration campaign, including young people registered with the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program—immigrants are wary of traveling or appearing in public.
“The whole community is targeted; they all have friends and neighbors who could be apprehended,” said Don Cameron, who manages the 6,000-acre Terranova Ranch in California’s San Joaquin Valley. “We’ve heard of people leaving their jobs and going back to Mexico. Once we get into the summer, I think this is really going to hit farming hard.”
This sense of fear pervading the agricultural workforce could severely impact the U.S. food system.
An Agricultural Guestworker Program Poised to Grow—And Exploit?
Because hiring agricultural workers through the H-2A visa program is expensive, requiring farmers to transport workers from Mexico and supply them with housing and a set wage, many farmers opt to hire from the undocumented population instead. Though the number of H-2A visas issued has roughly doubled since 2011, it’s still relatively small: In 2015, only about 4 percent of farmworkers came to the U.S. through the guestworker program.
“I think what we’re going to see is that more farmers are applying for H-2A visas,” said Gail Wadsworth, executive director of the California Institute for Rural Studies. If that happens, farmworkers could suffer, say some advocates.
First established in 1952 to offset labor shortages prompted by World War II, the H-2A program brings guest workers to the U.S. on temporary contracts to fill positions employers are unable to fill with domestic workers. Because the program ties workers to a specific employer, advocates say it creates the opportunity for exploitation.
“Guestworker programs [are] not designed to be good to workers; they’re almost always designed to be good for the employer,” Wadsworth said. In particular, she said the H-2A program “is ripe for abuse, simply because it gives workers very little ability to change their situation. If they’re unhappy with their employer, their employer can just deport them. They don’t have any recourse.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center, in a recent report, characterized today’s guestworker programs as rife with wage and contract abuse, documented discrimination, and on-the-job injuries without effective recourse.
CATA’s Ramirez regularly visits the labor camps at apple, peach, and blueberry farms in South New Jersey to educate workers about topics like the risks of exposure to heat and pesticides. She has noticed many violations of the conditions required by the H-2A program.
Workers have reported that their employers have taken away their visas and IDs and forbidden them from leaving the property or making phone calls—a practice that constitutes human trafficking—and sometimes workers do not receive the full wages they are owed, Ramirez said. Additionally, living conditions are sometimes extremely poor.
“When I go visit some of the labor camps, it reminds me of the rural communities in Mexico,” said Ramirez, whose parents are from Oaxaca. “They have pests; they have bed bugs, roaches, mice. On other occasions, I’ve seen an overload of trash and a lot of flies, especially in the summer,” she said. “The beds are not in the greatest condition—some of them don’t even have a mattress; they just have the foam.”
In North Carolina, one of the top states to use the H-2A program, Anna Jensen serves as executive director of NC Farmworkers Project, a nonprofit that connects workers with health information and medical services. Jensen worries that the administration’s discriminatory rhetoric will embolden growers to seal off their contracted workers.
“As advocates, [labor] camp access has always been an issue for us, having to negotiate with employers to let us talk to their workers,” Jensen said. “We’re worried that the current climate will justify some of the fear tactics [like discouraging workers from visiting health clinics or speaking with outsiders] that advocates see in an attempt to keep workers isolated.”
Farmworker Justice President Bruce Goldstein sees the potential for the H-2A program, as it grows, to run into the same trouble as the controversial Bracero Program, which brought 4.6 million Mexican workers to the U.S. to fill short-term agricultural contracts between 1942 and 1964. While in theory, the program offered safeguards for the Mexican worker—much like the H-2A program today—the rules were not well enforced, and Mexican workers suffered abuses including wage theft and substandard housing and food. Former Department of Labor official Lee G. Williams described the Bracero as a system of “legalized slavery.”
But as use of today’s guestworker programs become more widespread, they could be equally hard on workers. “The [agribusiness] lobbying that goes on to change the H-2A program … would eliminate many of the labor protections that existed under the Bracero program,” Goldstein said. “There’s no limit on the number of H-2A visas, and so the H-2A program can grow to be the size of the Bracero program and larger, and it can also, as it gets larger, become just as notorious.”
Rolling Back Worker Protection Regulations
On top of the likely expansion of the H-2A guestworker program, Trump’s proposed 2018 budget includes massive cuts to the departments that oversee the fair treatment and protection of the country’s workers, including those on farms and in restaurants.
The proposed cuts include a 20 percent decrease in funding to the Department of Labor—which regulates wages and hours and workplace safety and health, as well as the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act. It also includes a 31 percent cut to the Environmental Protection Agency—which sets worker protection standards for farmworkers and pesticide handlers. Trump also proposed eliminating the Legal Services Corporation, a nonprofit corporation that helps low-income people obtain representation in civil cases.
Additionally, Republicans voted in early March to repeal the Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces Executive Order that President Obama signed in July 2014, which requires companies contracting with the federal government to keep and disclose records of on-the-job accidents and fatalities.
“There are widespread violations of the limited labor protections that apply to farmworkers,” Goldstein said. “The presence of so many undocumented workers who are afraid of deportation means that some unscrupulous employers may take advantage and violate the minimum wage and other rights. We’re concerned that this administration wants to cut back the budgets of federal agencies that enforce [those] rights.”
Meanwhile, agribusiness groups are lobbying the administration to make the H-2A program more beneficial for U.S. employers. And they appear to be getting through: a draft executive order leaked to the press in January revealed that Trump planned to “prioritize the protection of American workers” and ensure the “efficient processing” of H-2A applications.
Goldstein said while the concept of “efficiency” could be taken in a number of ways, “Historically, that’s a euphemism for slashing the wage rates, removing other labor protections, and minimizing government oversight of the agricultural guestworker program.”
The Effect of Fear on Farms and Restaurants
Don Cameron relies on about 125 farmworkers at a time to harvest from mid-June to the end of November to harvest the 25 crops grown at Terranova Ranch. Because his farm cultivates primarily specialty crops—like peppers with the stems removed for use in salsas—much of the harvest requires picking by hand.
“I already have plants being grown in the greenhouse for this year’s crop,” Cameron said. “I’m pretty nervous; I don’t know if I’ll have the labor to do the harvest.”
Unless he can develop a good way to mechanically harvest the crops he grows, Cameron said, he may have to change what he plants moving forward.