By Elizabeth Henderson

Farmers who need to hire workers face a painful dilemma: revenues from farm products are too low to pay attractive wages, most local residents prefer cleaner, less physically demanding jobs, and many of the skilled farm workers are undocumented immigrants. Knowingly hiring an undocumented worker is a felony. As the new administration’s anti-immigrant policies unfold, pressure from farmers and farm organizations is increasing to expand the H-2A “Guestworker” program. Farmworker advocates question this program’s fairness to the workers from abroad and to the undocumented workers who make up 55 to 70 percent of current farm labor and who may lose their jobs to the imported workers. Farmers complain about the heavy paperwork burden involved in H-2A. Improving the guestworker program does not go to the source of the problem: the US cheap food system functions as long as there are sources of cheap labor. In a farming system worth sustaining, work as a professional farm worker will be a respected vocation that provides living wages with decent benefits.

But while we are transforming the cheap food system, we can at least reduce the injustices of the one farmers and farm workers must navigate in order to survive. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) proposal to reform the program identifies its major flaws:

“The so-called guestworker programs such as H-2A, and H-2B suffer from the same structural defect—they provide temporary workers to the companies that have been least successful in attracting a labor force.  The visas are given to workers, but the visas are tied to specific businesses, which often use intermediaries to recruit, transport, and supervise the workers.  The lack of portability of the visa inevitably leads to abuses by the intermediaries or employers—such as taking bribes, charging workers for equipment or transport, or demanding a portion of future earnings–since the workers fear retaliation if they complain.  These heavily bureaucratic programs should be abandoned for an approach that gives the workers a portable work visa and allows the labor market to function.”

The NSAC proposal envisages creating North American Agricultural Work Visas (NAAV), “dual intent” visas that would allow guestworkers to change employers and to come and go across the border.  The same freedom to cross the border legally should be instituted for the 11 million undocumented people in the US, including the million or more farm workers. Continue reading “Time to Replace H2A, the US “Guestworker” Program”