A group of labor and civil rights’ organizations are petitioning the Biden administration to reform a visa program that U.S. businesses use to recruit and employ foreign seasonal farmworkers.
The groups, which include United Farm Workers, Farmworker Justice, the Southern Poverty Law Center and others, said reforms are needed to stop labor abuse in a letter addressed to Vice President Kamala Harris and the heads of three federal agencies.
The groups say a recent federal indictment that accuses 24 defendants of human trafficking and other related crimes illustrates the program’s failures.
Prosecutors in that case said defendants required guest farmworkers to pay illegal fees, withheld their IDs, subjected them to work for little or no pay, housed them in crowded and unsanitary conditions and threatened them with deportation and violence. At least two workers died, the indictment said.
All defendants who entered pleas in the case have pleaded not guilty.
The groups’ letter asks authorities to launch an investigation into how the abuse described in the indictment occurred and why violations went undetected for years. It calls for a full audit of the visa program to prevent such abuses.
“We are alarmed by this case – not only because of its devastating allegations, but also because we believe that many other such abuses likely exist given the deeply flawed nature of the H-2A program and the widespread violations of farmworkers’ limited labor rights,” the letter said.
U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-GA, also has asked for reforms and increased oversight to better protect workers brought here through the program in a letter addressed to the secretaries of the Homeland Security, State and Labor departments.
“Many of these abuses stem from the near-total power that labor contractors and employers hold over guest workers, who must choose between accepting whatever horrid conditions they are forced to work in or face deportation,” he said in the letter.
A recent investigation by USA TODAY and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel exposed the same type of labor violations in the H-2A program.
The story exposed how Miguel Ángel Guzmán, a 24-year-old guest farmworker from Mexico, died of heat stroke after working for hours picking tomatoes. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration determined the contractor who hired him didn’t take adequate heat-related safety measures.
Some of Guzmán’s co-workers said they went into debt back home in Mexico to pay illegal fees and other costs to work in the U.S. Once here, they said their employer provided the employee housing required through the program in units that became unbearably hot at night and that they weren’t paid all the wages they were owed.
An operator of the contracting business employing those workers denied any wrongdoing. Representatives for two farms where workers planted and picked crops also said the workers were the contractor’s employees, not theirs.
The story exposed how contractors who employ guest workers and the farmers who hire the contractors often evade or fight liability for labor violations.
U.S. Department of Labor spokesman Egan Reich said the department is reviewing the letter sent by the labor rights groups and is in discussions with United Farm Workers about their position.
“The Department of Labor is deeply committed to protecting agricultural workers,” he said in a statement emailed to USA TODAY.
Reich also said the labor department’s Wage and Hour Division is training investigators to become better at spotting indicators of human trafficking and referring cases to criminal law enforcement agencies.
The department, he said, plans to publish new regulations this year in the guest farmworker program and OSHA has requested input to develop a heat standard – a rule specifying what employers need to do to protect workers from extreme heat.
Reich also said the Wage and Hour Division investigates whether employers forbid recruiters from soliciting recruitment fees in their contracts and whether they reimburse workers for costs for which employers are responsible. In fiscal year 2017 through 2021, he said, the agency cited violations for payment of prohibited fees in more than 200 concluded investigations.
It’s unclear how many guest farmworkers pay illegal recruitment fees, but a report by the guest worker advocacy group Center for Migrants’ Rights said a quarter of 100 workers interviewed in 2019 and 2020 reported that they had paid them. In recent years, the Department of Labor approved more than 8,000 employers yearly to bring in H-2A workers.
At the U.S. Department of State, spokesman Ned Price said in emailed responses that the department is committed to working with interagency partners and stakeholders to do more to mitigate vulnerabilities in U.S. visa programs, including by holding noncompliant employers accountable. He said the agency investigates all allegations of criminal activity related to the guest farmworker visa process.
Price said in countries with high numbers of guest farmworker visa applications, the agency targets outreach to warn potential visa applicants against paying prohibited fees and to educate them about their rights as temporary workers.
The Office of Vice President Kamala Harris and the Department of Homeland Security did not respond to emailed questions.FROM USA TODAY