Let’s talk about the border- Part V

This is Part V of a series about some of the challenges for Latino immigrants in the United States, and this post talks about the H-2A law and worker exploitation.

The Migrant Labor System

Estimates of the percentages of farmworkers who labor without documentation range from 50-70 percent. In past legislative debates, agricultural companies have actually worked against immigration policies that would facilitate workers being hired with documentation- because it would regulate the way that they would treat their workers and drive up their own production costs. Claims of their own financial difficulties are undercut by the statistic that “Between 1997 and 2007, the agriculture industry enjoyed a nearly 80 percent average annual increase in corporate profits…Over the same period, the average real wage of a farm worker remained stagnant.”

The H-2A program has been some of the most influential agricultural immigration policy over the last few decades.  It is extremely common for employers to knowingly hire workers without documentation; however, the H-2A program is another, more officially “legal” route to a cheap labor pool.

The process begins in the home communities of the workers. The employers send H-2A recruiters, who promise hard work but high wages and a better life. Coupled with the popular perception of the United States as the “land of opportunity,” their promises can be hard to resist. However, these promises are not free- the workers must pay significant costs to obtain this passage to a new country, including paying for a visa, costs of transportation, and for the employment itself. Already, before they have begun earning any money, they owe money to the people who hire them.

When these workers arrive in the United States, they are greeted with low (or stolen) wages. They even can be subjected to forced labor– or, the real and ugly word, slavery. This system of “debt bondage” that H-2A promotes facilitates their captivity. When the workers arrive, they generally live in “housing” (I use that term loosely) provided by their employers, for which they are charged. According to antislavery.org, “Deductions are made from their wages for transport, accommodation, food, work equipment, and supposed tax and social security payments. Weekly wages are sporadic and in many instances workers are left with no pay.” So they build up more and more debt over time, which they are forced to try to continue to work off.

H-2A workers themselves are in a very unique legal situation. They can only work for a limited time with the employer who brought them to the United States. At any moment, the employer may choose to terminate their employment, resulting in their deportation. As one of the provisions of the H-2A law, the employers are not required to pay Social Security or unemployment taxes for H-2A workers.

H-2A workers are preferred over legal permanent residents because of the exploitation that employers are able to perpetrate. There have been cases in which legal permanent residents have been fired for the explicit reason that they must legally be paid higher wages, as well as the prohibition from forcing them to work such extensive hours.

The system also leaves room for exploitation in the requirement for employers to reimburse the workers for transportation costs from their home countries after they have worked for half of a season. However, the employers often choose to fire the workers just before this point, so they do not have to pay. This leaves workers not only without the cost of their travels, but without jobs as well.

The treatment of the workers themselves can betray slavery- conditions as well. They may be compelled to work in the hot sun, and around dangerous chemicals (especially pesticides), for 10-12 hours at a time. Exposure to these toxic chemicals can also include nicotine absorbed through the skin- and many of the people exposed to this are children. Workers often suffer dizziness, rashes, and headaches, or vomiting— or cancer, neurological disorders, birth defects, and death as a result. There have even been accounts of workers being sprayed down directly with DDT. Housing conditions can include trailers, barracks, dilapidated homes, or any combination of the above. Their common feature is overcrowding and lack of sanitation. Workers can be watched by armed guards to prevent escape, and told that if they attempt to advocate for themselves, either they or their families will suffer the consequences. Workers may be physically tortured with techniques such as whipping, and many women suffer sexual assault.

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In the last portion of this series, Part VI, I’ll offer some of my final thoughts and some of the ways that you can choose to become involved.