The pandemic has worsened a worker shortage, and more farms are applying to hire foreign workers. Farmers say that they wouldn’t be able to do the work without the migrant workers they employs each year, who usually arrive around March and leave in mid-November.
Most of the workers come from Mexico on what’s known as H-2A visas. It’s a seasonal guest worker program for agriculture work in the US that was set up by the government in 1986 to help tackle the domestic agricultural worker shortage.
Some rural areas in the US are facing an agricultural labor shortage made worse by the ongoing pandemic. More farmers are hiring seasonal foreign workers each year — they say that immigration and guest worker visa reforms are their only hope for survival. But the migrant workers behind these jobs want lawmakers and employers to consider their experiences, too, before making any sweeping changes.
“I don’t know what we would do if we didn’t have the H-2A program. There’s just no one out there that wants to do that kind of work, regardless of the wage,” a farm owner in Idaho said.
Many farm groups are asking lawmakers to expand the guest worker program so that it now includes nonseasonal work. That is — farmwork that happens year-round, like work at dairy and mushroom farms.
Rick Naerebout, chief executive of the Idaho Dairymen’s Association, said most in the dairy industry want immigration reform on top of access to the guest worker program. About half of crop farmworkers in the US are undocumented, according to the US Department of Agriculture.
Lawmakers in Congress are considering legalizing those workers as part of the budget reconciliation package, which would also give green cards to thousands of others, including recipients of DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and Temporary Protected Status. But that plan has stalled in the Senate.
Also under consideration is making the H-2A program affordable. Many farmers who depend on seasonal labor say it’s expensive, since they’re required to provide workers with housing and transportation.
But there are workers’ rights groups worried about what could happen if the program grows.
Workers are often already vulnerable to exploitation, because they’re tied to one employer per season, said Bruce Goldstein, president at Farmworker Justice, a national nonprofit that works on farmworkers’ rights.
“All too often, they’re not paid what they’re told they’re going to be paid,” Goldstein said, “But if they complain, they risk being fired and deported. So, they generally don’t complain and they keep working, and then they go home at the end of the season.”
H-2A program needs to be carefully examined by lawmakers before making any changes to account for both, farmers and immigrant workers, interests.
“The employers benefit from our work and they earn money, and us, too, we also satisfy our needs as workers,” said an H-2A immigrant worker. “I think it’s a win-win situation.”
Source: The World