Guest farm workers do not always understand the rules

Employees wait for the next load of pecans to be dropped off at the cleaning plant at the Green Valley Pecan Company on Monday, Dec. 5, 2016. (Photo by Rebecca Noble / Arizona Sonora News)

With almost no one in the U.S. willing to work harvest jobs, farms have imported workers via temporary visas, a program widely criticized for the extensive bureaucratic requirements including housing workers.

This winter Yuma area farms are expected to produce around 90 percent of the nation’s lettuce and green crops, meaning these farms need to find enough labor to harvest their crops.

This year, 77 Arizona worksites requested temporary workers, of those four were denied. A total of 5,676 imported workers have so far worked or will work in Arizona this year.

Arizona had six housing violations filed since the beginning of 2016, two of which were the same farm. The housing inspections are conducted by the Arizona Department of Economic Security.

G farms was listed among the violators for “job order specification” and “misrepresented terms and conditions of employment.” It was later discovered that workers were being housed in renovated school buses and semitrailers considered a fire and safety hazard, sparking controversy around the housing requirements for the H-2A program.

“Entities who engage in visa program fraud and abuse are breaking our laws and are harming American workers,” said Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta in a news release. “The U.S. Department of Labor will focus on preventing visa program abuse and take every available legal action against those who abuse these programs.”

The other violations listed varied from not meeting laundry requirements to not providing daily meals.

Some violations may have gone unreported since the employers control who they will rehire next season. According to Goldstein this gives the employer significant leverage over the employee, and prevents workers from negotiating for a better wage.

The other issue raised by Amanda Caldwell, managing attorney for Community Legal Services, is that many workers don’t have a full understanding of their rights as a temporary worker.

Caldwell, who represents farm workers in litigation issues, says the violations such as overcrowding or lacking basic necessities are not uncommon.

Employees sift through pecans to weed out shells and imperfect nuts before they are packaged at the Green Valley Pecan Company on Monday, Dec. 5, 2016. (Photo by Rebecca Noble / Arizona Sonora News)

“Housing problems among farm workers in general are pretty common,” said Caldwell. “It’s not an everyday occurrence but they are pretty egregious violations, like imagine if you lived in a house without running water.”

“For far too long, the broken H-2A guestworker program has buried American farmers in red tape and excessive costs without delivering access to a stable and reliable workforce,” said Virginia Rep. Bob Goodlatte in a press release.

Goodlatte sponsored H.R. 1773, the AG Act, back in 2013 to replace the H-2A system with H-2C visas, though it died in congress. The bill was reintroduced on Oct. 23, 2017 and passed the House Judiciary Committee with 17-16 votes.

The next step for the bill will be going through the House of Representatives. A date has not yet been set.

The most significant change the bill would make is handing the visa program over to the Department of Agriculture, rather than the Department of Labor, who currently oversees the process. Certain groups fear the Department of Agriculture will only meet the needs of farm owners and not the workers.

“It would guarantee exploitable conditions to workers,” said Bruce Goldstein, president of Farmworker Justice, a nonprofit migrant worker rights group based in Washington D.C. He listed reasons such as converting undocumented workers to contract laborers and denying citizenship to workers who are already here.

However, the bill does address problems farm owners have with the H-2A program, such as allowing farms to pay a higher wage instead of housing the workers themselves.

The housing requirements checklist ranges from providing basic necessities like bathroom access to specific structural requirements. According to the Arizona Farm Bureau, a non-government organization made up of farm owners, the Ritz-Carlton wouldn’t pass inspection

“They’re not looking for posh. They’re not looking for nice. They have a checklist and it’s the oddest checklist,” said John Boelts elected member of the Arizona Farm bureau and owner of Desert Premium Farms in Yuma. “I have to say that they are not particularly things that any of the workers are complaining or worried about.”

For larger employers of temporary workers in Yuma, they buy out entire apartment complexes and renovate them to meet the checklist according to Boelts.

Farmworker Justice in a press release advocated for the Agriculture Workers Program Act as a solution to the problem. This program would authorize blue cards for agriculture workers and currently undocumented farm workers.

“The Agricultural Worker Program Act recognizes the value of farmworkers to the stability of our food system by providing a path to citizenship for qualified farmworkers and their families,” stated Farmworker Justice in a press release. “The legislation would benefit not only farmworkers and agricultural employers, but also our national interest in a secure, safe food supply.”

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