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New report on guest farmworker program highlights rampant abuse

LatinaLista — One of the strongest arguments that comprehensive immigration reform needs to be addressed by Congress as quickly as possible has to do with the nation’s food supply.

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Right now, farmers are allowed to employ foreign guest workers on temporary work visas to fill seasonal jobs, as long as they can prove they have a shortage of U.S. workers willing to do the work and that they will provide a wage and working conditions that meet certain requirements.

Unfortunately, some farmers have abused the system.

In the report “No Way to Treat a Guest: Why the H-2A Agricultural Visa Program Fails U.S. and Foreign Workers,” researchers from Farmworker Justice point out that: “Guest workers make up roughly 10 percent of the agricultural labor force in the United States, between 50 – 70 percent of which is composed of undocumented workers.”

Despite the downturn in the economy and the 9.1 unemployment rate, the U.S. Dept. of Labor expanded approval of H-2A visas for entering farmworkers by 80 percent from 2005 to 2009.

While the farm work provides much needed employment to these workers, it also enables unscrupulous farmers to take advantage of them and at the same time deny work to US citizens.

According to the report:

Once an employer decides to enter the H-2A program, the law creates incentives to prefer guest workers over U.S. workers. For example, the employer must pay Social Security and unemployment taxes on U.S. workers’ wages but is exempt from paying these taxes on guest workers’ wages.

Violations of the rights of U.S. workers and guest workers by H-2A program employers are rampant and systemic. The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), which has primary responsibility for administering the H-2A program, frequently approves illegal job terms in the H-2A workers’ contracts. U.S. workers who apply for H-2A jobs are rejected or forced to quit. Employees at H-2A employers routinely experience wage theft and other unlawful practices.

Abuses in the recruitment of foreign workers are endemic. H-2A employers and their recruiting agents in Mexico and other poor countries exploit the vulnerability of foreign citizens. Many guest workers must pay recruiters for H-2A jobs and enter the U.S. indebted, desperate to work, and fearful that the loss of their job will lead to financial ruin. The H-2A recruitment system has led to numerous documented cases of debt-peonage, human trafficking, and forced labor.

More than one-half of the farmworkers on U.S. farms and ranches lack authorized immigration status. The presence of so many undocumented workers deprives all farmworkers of bargaining power and political influence. Deporting all or most undocumented farmworkers would be costly and impractical, inflict harm on hundreds

of thousands of hard-working farmworkers and their families, many of whom are United States citizens, and deprive agriculture of the workforce it needs to produce our fruits, vegetables and livestock.

While there are simple and immediate solutions to the problems that exist with the H-2A visa program — better monitoring and penalizing of abusive employers, ensuring fair wages for foreign workers and a safe employment environment without threat of intimidation or fear of financial ruin — the best overall solution remains passing comprehensive immigration reform where foreign workers can be empowered to use their voices to speak out against abuse on all levels.

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