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Legislation Could Bring More Oversight to Guest Farmworker Program

Washington state expects 30,000 guest workers from the H-2A program this year. (Brenda Bentley/Community to Community Development)
Washington state expects 30,000 guest workers from the H-2A program this year. (Brenda Bentley/Community to Community Development)
February 7, 2019

OLYMPIA, Wash. – A measure in the Washington State Legislature would establish more oversight for a federal program that allows farms to recruit guest workers from other countries.

The bill would create an office of compliance for the guest worker program, known as H-2A, and require employers to pay a fee for worker applications.

The Employment Security Department (ESD) requested the bill, saying the program has grown more than 1,000 percent over the past decade, but has been unable to get more funding from the federal government.

Rosalinda Guillen, executive director of the farmworkers’ rights group Community to Community Development, says H-2A workers face retaliation for protesting working conditions.

"These growers and labor contractors that bring workers in blacklist workers who complain,” she states. “So, yes, we think that the growers prefer the H-2A program because it's a totally controllable, captive labor force."

Guillen says her organization receives complaints from guest workers about pay and poor housing and labor conditions. She notes that workers aren't able to form a union and protest because employers can send them back home for doing so.

The ESD expects 30,000 H-2A workers in Washington state this year. The Senate version of the bill, SB 5438, has a hearing Thursday in the Committee on Labor and Commerce.

Ryan Ogburn is the director of visa services with WAFLA, an Olympia-based farm labor organization. He says this measure will create unnecessary regulations for farmers.

"They're facing lower commodity prices, higher labor costs, higher operating costs, lower global markets,” he points out. “So it's just kind of a perfect storm of more regulation, more taxes, more costs for these employers, these farmers who are trying to get by, especially the smaller farms up here in Washington state."

Edgar Franks, civic engagement coordinator with Community to Community Development. disagrees that the state has a worker shortage and says this bill will give ESD the funding needed to analyze this issue.

He says domestic, unionized farmworkers like those in Familias Unidas por la Justicia are overlooked for H-2A workers, who can't form their own union.

"The only thing that exists is that there's a shortage of farms that are paying workers what they owe,” he states. “So, the industry is really pushing back against anything that brings fairness for farmworkers, whether it be domestic workers or H-2A workers."

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - WA