WASHINGTON – The number of visas issued in Maryland for foreign farm laborers has grown steadily over the last few years, as farmers have warmed to the program, officials say.
Temporary agricultural workers allowed in Maryland under the H-2A visa program were stable for about a decade until the mid-1990s, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. But the number jumped from about 200 in 1998 to about 400 in 2000.
Requests for workers in Maryland are increasingly coming from small farmers who want a handful of guest workers at a time, rather than from big operations, said Carl Reavis, a Maryland Job Service official who deals with migrant and seasonal farm workers.
Despite the increase in H-2A requests, migrant workers here on visas still form only a fraction of the 3,500 or seasonal workers in the state. An estimated 40 percent of the state’s migrant farm workers are undocumented, and the rest were born here or have immigrated legally.
Supporters say the visa program, while still relatively small, gives farmers the workers they need and it gives workers government protection from the exploitation they might face as undocumented aliens. In Maryland, it also guarantees them pay that is higher than the minimum wage.
But advocates for migrants say that while the program looks good on paper, the status of temporary workers is so tenuous that, in reality, they are rarely able to appeal for the protections the visa program is supposed to give them.
The opponents say the H-2A program is simply a government-sanctioned way to exploit cheap labor from overseas, keeping costs down and crushing any chance that farm wages and working conditions can improve. Those poor conditions are what keep American workers away, which in turn drives up the need for foreign workers, they argue.
The program, a farmer’s only legal source of foreign labor, is not cheap or simple.
Before they petition, employers must advertise their job openings in local print and broadcast media and in a government job bank to ensure that no local workers are available. Even then, farmers are obliged to hire any qualified U.S. applicants who show up before the contract period is half over.
Once approved for foreign workers, the farmers must pay the workers’ way to and from the country where they were recruited. They must provide housing and cooking facilities and worker’s compensation insurance and they must guarantee their workers at least three-quarters of the hours agreed to in the labor contract, even in the face of bad weather or crop disasters.
Farmers must also pay H-2A workers an “adverse minimum wage” — the wage needed to ensure that local labor is not being undercut. In Maryland, the adverse minimum wage is $7.37 per hour.
Except for worker’s compensation, none of these protections are available to U.S. farm workers.
Opponents argue that if American workers were as well protected, there would be no need for the H-2A program — domestic workers may be more eager to take up farm jobs.
“Americans do a lot of crappy jobs,” said Greg Schell, an attorney at the Migrant Farm Worker Justice Project in Florida. “They lay asphalt, for example, but people get paid real money for those jobs.”
Once here, foreign guest workers are tied to their employers: They cannot switch jobs and must leave the country once the contract ends. Schell and other advocates say the fact that foreign workers are practically indentured to their employers makes them particularly vulnerable to abuse.
Those who go through large labor recruiters may be event more reluctant to complain, fearing they could be fired and blacklisted from any future jobs.
Because the workers under visa are exempt from the federal laws on migrants, if they have a beef with their employers they have to take it to state court.
Beefs are not uncommon: Some workers go into debt to get here, only to have employers refuse to reimburse them. Others are charged for meals, housing and tools, charges that are specifically prohibited by the visa agreement. Advocates charge that some employers find ways around the alternative minimum wage, shaving hours or rejiggering piecework rates to cut pay.
Schell charges that farmers make little effort to recruit American workers, as long as they can justify allowing an endless supply of aliens into the country who are unable to organize and reluctant to complain.
“The bottom line is that the job is a terrible job,” said Shell. “In the early ’80s, it was African Americans doing the job, now it’s immigrants who don’t have an option.”
But Frederick County farmer Jean Phillips defends the program, after her initial reluctance to get involved because of all the government red tape that came with it. Wider use of H-2A visas could cut out the “black market” of illegal immigration.
She also defended the treatment of visa workers by Maryland farmers, pointing to the relatively high wages and good housing here. Phillips said the need for labor in Maryland is so dire that farmers who tried to cheat their workers wouldn’t last long.
“Most of us small guys couldn’t do it if we didn’t take good care of our guys,” she said. “They’re not going to put up with it.”