While members of Congress seek to make the H-2A program cheaper and easier for employers by rolling-back worker protections, the US Department of Labor continues to kick bad-actor employers out of the program. This week the USDOL’s Wage and Hour office in Raleigh announced that they had debarred two farm labor contractors from the H-2A guestworker program. This is just the latest in a series of such announcements, which underscores the flaws in the H-2A program.
The H-2A program allows employers to bring in foreign guestworkers to work in agriculture for up to 10 months. By statute, H-2A visas are only supposed to be issued when importing foreign labor will not have an adverse effect on the wages and working conditions of the local workers doing the same kind of work. To that end, DOL has passed regulations which govern the test of the local labor market which employers must first do before being permitted to bring in visa workers.
Additional regulations govern how workers – both H-2A visa workers and U.S. workers – are treated on the job, including setting a minimum wage, a minimum hours guarantee, the requirement that employers provide free housing which meets minimum standards and that employers reimburse the foreign visa workers for their inbound transportation costs and the expense of obtaining their visa. The reimbursement requirement is important because visa workers usually arrive in the U.S. to begin working with significant debt, making it difficult for them to afford basic necessities, unlikely to complain about dangerous or illegal working conditions, and vulnerable to human trafficking as discussed in several publications (Close to Slavery, No Way to Treat a Guest) and articles (The New American Slavery: Invited to the U.S., Foreign Workers Find a Nightmare; “All You Americans Are Fired”).
This week’s announcement from the Raleigh USDOL office comes on the heels of similar announcements in April and May. Worldwide Staffing, LLC, another H-2A Labor Contractor, was debarred by USDOL in April for failing to reimburse employees for inbound expenses, owing wages, failing to provide adequate cooking facilities and overcharging for meals. In May, USDOL announced they had debarred Marisa Garcia-Pineda, an H-2A labor contractor, who owed $195,735 in backwages, had charged illegal recruitment fees, and failed to reimburse the workers, among other violations. That is all just from the last few months and there will be more this year. Kudos to USDOL, but these actions represent a very small fraction of the problem because they can only debar employers from the H-2A program in the most extreme cases.
Despite the well-documented history of abuse of workers in the H-2A program, efforts in Congress to roll-back worker protections are ongoing. Representative Goodlatte’s terrible Agricultural Guestworker Act was part of more comprehensive immigration legislation that was recently voted down in the House, but apparently Speaker Ryan has promised to address farm-labor legislation this summer. In addition, the Trump Administration is expected to introduce new proposed rules for the H-2A program which would make it cheaper and more appealing to agricultural employers while undermining the basic protections for workers.