The Perils of H-2A Workers: F.L.O.C. Works Against Danger on Both Sides of the Border

One might imagine that having a legal avenue to work in the United States would provide great benefits and security over the myriad challenges faced by undocumented workers who come to the U.S. But stories from U.S. fields and from guest workers’ hometowns abroad reveal that H-2A workers face great vulnerabilities.

There are approximately 30,000 farm workers currently in the United States working under temporary worker visas (H-2A visas). H-2A visas are awarded to “non-immigrant” workers abroad who have been sponsored by a U.S. employer who has proved unable to find U.S. citizens to employ. H-2A visas are valid for up to 364 days. Employers can reapply yearly to bring workers back for seasonal work.  This arrangement may seem benign, but the power dynamics between employer and worker all too often play out in ugly ways. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers translates the problems with the program below:

Guestworkers remain in the country only at the pleasure of their employer, they cannot change jobs, and they are obliged to return to their home country once their employer is finished with them, or face deportation. This arrangement places a tremendous amount of power over workers’ lives in the hands of their employers, and in agriculture, this has frequently resulted in cases of extreme exploitation.

A specific case of exploitation that this statement alludes to is a slavery ring discovered this September that operated in over a dozen states and exploited 400 Thai H-2A workers. It is the largest human trafficking case to ever be prosecuted in the United States.  Multiple other agricultural slavery cases that the CIW has helped to prosecute over the last decade have involved victims who came to the U.S. under H-2A status. The tip of the iceberg rule applies to these cases. For every slavery case successfully prosecuted, it’s guaranteed that many more go undetected. These horrible cases also point to a spectrum of mistreatment that many H2-A workers face. Slavery is the worst result, but many H2-A workers report less severe but still problematic conditions while in the U.S. Often promised wages are withheld or reduced, many times workers are forced to pay their employers exorbitant rates for transportation and housing.

And H2-A workers often face exploitation before arriving in the U.S. The recruitment process provides ample opportunity to take advantage of workers unfamiliar with their rights and unknowledgeable about the country in which they hope to find work. In the case of the slavery ring prosecuted this year in Honolulu, the FBI found that the organization running the ring falsely promised Thai workers high wages and convinced many to “mortgage their homes or farms in Thailand to pay the company anywhere from $9,000 to $21,000 to secure them jobs in the United States.” Middlemen coercing workers into paying stiff fees for H-2A visas has become all too common practice.

Defending Workers Across the Boarder

The Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) has organized workers in the Midwest since the late 1960’s and has come to realize that the problems that many immigrant farm workers face are transnational problems that require organizing effort spread across boarders.  In addition to its union work and boycott campaigns in the U.S., FLOC has begun organizing H-2A workers in Mexico before they come to the United States. By cutting out the often-exploitative middleman in the visa process, FLOC is able to protect workers by informing them of their rights and providing a community of support once they come to the U.S. This strategy helps to work against the great isolation and powerlessness that many H-2 workers face once they are in the U.S. This organizing model provides a strategy for thinking broadly and creatively about how to shape and empower the agrarian work force that is becoming increasingly international.

To read a good article about H-2A workers, check out the Southern Poverty Law Center’s website.

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