When Vulnerability and Lax Enforcement Combine in H-2A

As the use of H-2A visas continues to accelerate, the abuses and violations hidden within this program are receiving more light as well. Media outlets recently released investigative work on Idaho-based sheep farmers in slavery-like conditions, workers in North Carolina who died in after their dilapidated employer-provided housing broke out in flames, and Missouri workers living in substandard housing. As use of the program increases, abuses also threaten to increase. A federal program to boost worker protections may help, however.

By all appearances, the H-2A visa program has robust protections. Farmers must provide housing and transportation, competitive wages, workers’ compensation, and guaranteed pay for work up to a percentage of the total contract – even if the labor is no longer needed. Visa holders have the opportunity to earn wages that far exceed market rates in their home countries. Some workers become like family to their host farms.

Yet, stories of abuses and violations have been emerging more regularly. Why?  A potent combination of vulnerability, lax enforcement, and exploitative intermediaries create conditions that can quickly snowball into tragedy. As program utilization grows at rates of 10% or more each year, that means expanding demand for the housing and compliance inspections expected as part of the program. Yet, there isn’t necessarily increasing support for the state and local service providers that perform these vital inspections.

Additionally, H-2A visa holders’ presence in the United States is legally dependent on keeping their job. Getting fired or laid off from their current position is equivalent to a deportation sentence. This creates a unique vulnerability that domestic workers don’t experience. Adding to it, navigating the program and securing workers often involves hiring intermediaries like labor contractors and other agents. These agents are in a prime position to exploit that vulnerability through illegal fees, extortion, and threats. Well-meaning farmers easily have no idea that human trafficking and exploitation are happening right on their farms.

The federal government is aware of these concerns, as well as the increasing demand for temporary agricultural workforce solutions. As a result, the USDA is rolling out a new Farm Labor Stabilization and Protection Pilot Program (FLSP Program). This program promises to improve access to workers while also expanding protections and benefits to H-2A workers. Qualifying employers can apply for funds to support their H-2A worker programs. Of course, advocates hope the benefits stick around even after the federal money is used up.

For more information on H-2A, attend our upcoming program H-2A and Your Ag Business: Considerations for Workforce Development, a partnership between Farm Commons and FairShare CSA Coalition.