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Immigrant Worker Program 'No Way to Treat a Guest,' Critics Say

An H-2A worker died while working on a farm in Sumas, Wash., last summer, sparking protests from other guest workers on the farm. (Community to Community Development)
An H-2A worker died while working on a farm in Sumas, Wash., last summer, sparking protests from other guest workers on the farm. (Community to Community Development)
April 3, 2018

BELLINGHAM, Wash. – Critics say the country's guest farmworker program is exploiting laborers. Today, a panel of speakers in Bellingham will discuss the effects of this program formally known as the H-2A farm labor program. The program allows farms to recruit workers from other countries and gives them temporary visas.

David Bacon is an independent photojournalist who covers labor and migration. He says employers who use the program have a troublesome track record of failing to uphold workers' contracts.

"Growers are required, for instance, to fulfill the terms of the contract to pay a certain wage, to provide housing, to provide transportation," he says. "There is a long record of cheating, essentially - of growers who do not provide what they are supposed to provide."

Last year, a laborer in the country on an H-2A visa died in the field while working near the town of Sumas, bringing attention to the work environment on the farm and laborers' ability to protest harsh conditions.

Workers under this visa are tied closely to their employers and can be sent back to their country if they stop working. Last year, about 15,000 H-2A workers were expected to be employed in the Evergreen State.

Jeff Johnson is the president of the Washington State Labor Council, which has been fighting for farm-worker rights for more than 30 years. While many rights have been extended to domestic farm workers, Johnson says that isn't the case for guest workers, who can still be fired and sent back to their country for protesting conditions.

"They ought to have the ability to speak up for themselves, to be represented by a union should they choose to," Johnson says. "They should have full rights under our Fair Labor Standards Act and, in fact, we don't see that happening."

Bacon says workers often work in poor conditions and at the whim of their employer. He says the program needs a major overhaul in order to give laborers more social and labor rights.

"People need, basically, green cards," Bacon adds. "People need residence visas so that they can make choices about when they want to come, how they want to work, where they want to go, whether they want to go back and see their families in Mexico, and when they want to do that."

Today's forum is the fourth in a series on farm workers' rights organized by Community to Community Development.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - WA