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Lower Wages And Housing Deregulation In Proposed Rules For Guest-Farm Labor

A farm worker out in the field.
U.S. Department of Agriculture
H-2A workers supplement the labor force during North Carolina's growing season.

New proposed rules from the U.S. Department of Labor could impact tens of thousands of temporary immigrant farm workers who come to North Carolina each year.

For years, North Carolina has been one of the top hosts of H-2A workers in the nation, and the program provides farm labor for about 30% of North Carolina agricultural employers, according to the North Carolina Growers Association. The new rules would allow employers to lower H-2A wages and no longer requires a full refund of workers’ transportation costs from their place of origin to the U.S. farm. The proposal would also relax inspections of workers’ housing, allowing owners to self-report the conditions of migrant living quarters.The Department of Labor proposed the changes after expanding the program this year in response to farmers’ consistent complaints of seasonal labor shortages.

Host Frank Stasio talks with Jorge Valencia, senior field correspondent for KJZZ’s bureau in Mexico City, and Nathan Dollar, chair of the governing board for the North Carolina Farmworker Health Program, about how the move to deregulate migrant labor could affect North Carolina’s agricultural economy and farm worker safety.


Valencia on the scale of the H-2A labor force:

This is a visa program that allows farm owners to legally hire temporary workers on a seasonal basis. ... This visa program tripled over the last decade and went from about 82,000 [visas issued] 10 years ago to 240,000. This is a program that is used widely across the country. North Carolina is actually the fourth recipient after, I believe, Georgia, Florida and the state of Washington … This is labor that many farms across the country — [including] berries and tobacco in North Carolina —  rely on to be able to harvest their crops.

Valencia on the proposed reduction of travel reimbursements for farm workers:

This is several hundred dollars less that the workers are going to receive … Perhaps to us, it doesn't sound like much of a burden. But most of the people who take these jobs are very poor people … They have to borrow large amounts of money to be able to just get there. They have to wait for days … What will happen — if this goes through — is that there will be a much higher burden on the worker. In a sense, it can be interpreted as if the worker is, in effect, paying in order to be able to work. 

Credit Office of Foreign Labor Certification
Office of Foreign Labor Certification
Statistics from the Office of Foreign Labor Certification shows North Carolina's prominence in H-2A employment.

Dollar on the H-2A program in North Carolina:

The program has expanded dramatically over the past 10 years in North Carolina in particular. Since 2012, the program has increased by 76%. So what that means is that the total number of H-2A positions certified by the United States Department of Labor increased from 10,500 approximately in 2012 to 18,500 in fiscal year 2018.

Dollar on farm owners preference for H-2A workers:

Agricultural employers nationwide appear to increasingly prefer H-2A workers for a number of reasons.  One of those is that these H-2A visas restrict foreign workers to a particular employer for a set period of time, and the foreign workers are dependent on the employer for that job … Frequently H-2A workers who have borrowed money to travel to the US arrive indebted, and they're reluctant to speak up or report violations or breaches of the H-2A contract for fear of being forced to return home, not being called back the next year, etc.

Grant Holub-Moorman coordinates events and North Carolina outreach for WUNC, including a monthly trivia night. He is a founding member of Embodied and a former producer for The State of Things.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.
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