Can America’s documented, foreign guest worker program keep up with demand?

By on Mar 31, 2017 in Stories |

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It’s a hot job. They sweat beneath an early autumn sun, lugging a ladder from tree to tree, gathering as many apples as can fit into a bucket. Container full, they unclip the bucket’s cloth bottom to empty the fruit into a large, wooden crate on the back of a tractor. Then they start all over again.

This is how Jamaican pickers spend their days at Apple Hill Farm in Concord each September. They’ve worked for farmers Chuck and Diane Souther for decades as federally approved foreign-born laborers coming to the U.S. through the H-2A temporary agricultural labor certification program.

Contrary to the undocumented workers who often use forged or expired documents to land employment at year-round operations like dairy farms, these seasonal, authorized workers may have the support of the President Donald Trump’s administration. A purported leaked federal memo appears to support temporary foreign laborers by suggesting the removal of red tape.

At a time when the nation is grappling with both farm labor challenges and immigration policy, Trump’s support for the H-2A program could be a bright spot. As other farmers are waiting and worrying about losing their unauthorized migrant workers to deportation, seasonal growers are waiting to see if the H-2A program can really be strengthened under the Trump administration.

The guest-worker system is currently having trouble keeping up with growing demand and a backlog of paperwork, however. Labor advocates say there continue to be gaps in worker protections, too.

And then there’s just the general uncertainty that comes along with a new administration. Souther said he and other growers remain wary, but hopeful.

“At the moment we’re sort of cautiously crossing our fingers and hoping everything works,” he said.

Program growth

This is the time of year Souther fills out the applications for his Jamaican pickers to come back in time for the July vegetable season.

He and his wife, Diane, historically have had pickers help out only for the apple season from September on, but they’ve diversified their business to include earlier crops. That means they’ll also need workers earlier in the season.

“We’re growing more and more vegetables. It was purely economics,” Chuck said in an interview last fall.

It is also the economy that drives them to use the H-2A program. They simply can’t find local people to fill the jobs, Souther said, especially once high school and college students are back in class.

Foreign labor isn’t necessarily the easiest way to produce food. The application process is “onerous,” Souther said, and each laborer costs him about $1,600, every season (travel and housing costs included).

Despite these inconveniences, the Southers are part of a trend that has increased overall demand for H-2A workers in the United States in recent years. U.S. Department of Labor data shows that while 59,110 laborers were certified to do seasonal agricultural work in 2006, a decade later, that number jumped to 165,741.

For comparison, according to Pew Research Center, there are approximately 320,000 undocumented farm workers in the United States.

While New Hampshire’s H-2A worker application numbers have stayed relatively steady in recent years, the overall higher volume has already caused a slowdown in paperwork processing.

“I know people who got workers late last year,” Souther said. He added that the Northeast, with its later growing season and later requests for workers, could be affected.

It’s “nerve-racking,” Souther said, to not know whether you have workers until usually 10 days before the work start date.

In the leaked federal memo – one of six documents given to Vox.com purported to be executive order drafts – the Trump administration is trying to get ahead of the issue.

It shows that the administration would, within 90 days of an executive order, give the president options for “ensuring efficient processing” of the H-2A applications while maintaining the program’s integrity.

The “Protecting American Jobs and Workers by Strengthening the Integrity of Foreign Worker Visa Programs” order, however, which includes the H-2A actions in the purported draft, has not been one of the 19 orders the president has issued thus far.

Souther said the New England Apple Council plans to discuss labor challenges at a meeting next week, and in the meantime, he’s cautiously optimistic.

“I guess I’d like to think the Department of Labor can predict with some degree that early June is when the biggest influx of workers is,” he said. “I guess I’d hope the government is nimble on their feet, but maybe not. We’re at the whim of this program.”

Right way?

If all goes well, the coming growing season at Apple Hill Farm will be pretty similar to the last one.

On the first day of autumn in 2016, Souther drove a golf cart into some of the farther reaches of his orchard, where four men picked apples. Generally, Souther said he likes the setup between himself and the Jamaican guest workers.

“This is a contract between me and them,” he said. “There are protections in there for both of us.”

Usually, the pickers work 10 hours a day, six or seven days a week.

“Unless it’s raining, they’d rather be working,” Souther said.

Souther is required, by the contract, to pay workers for 75 percent of the hours they are scheduled for, regardless of whether all those hours are completed or necessary. The wage last year was $11.74 an hour, a rate set by the government so as to not disadvantage American workers.

Apple Hill Farm must also provide housing that’s inspected by a Department of Labor representative. More recently, Souther said the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has begun requiring pay card audits, too.

“We get all kinds of people coming through,” he said.

In return, the workers must abide by quality standards laid out in the paperwork. Souther said that’s not an issue since the men he hires are farmers back in Jamaica.

“They intuitively understand,” he said. “They’re good workers.”

Some advocacy groups have criticized the Department of Labor’s various foreign labor programs, including H-2A. The Southern Poverty Law Center wrote a 2013 report about the exploitation in the U.S.’s guestworker programs.

While the report said the H-2A program has the most protections for foreign labor, many “exist only on paper.” SPLC documented wage undercutting, extortion by people in the laborer’s home country, and contract violations, all resulting in harm toward the farm worker.

But at Apple Hill Farm, at least, the Jamaican men appear satisfied with their working conditions.

Percel Stewart, a 53-year-old cabbage and yam farmer in St. Elizabeth, Jamaica, has been helping at Apple Hill Farm since 1997.

“The year Princess Diana died,” he noted during an interview this past autumn. He comes to raise money for his family every summer, and he said it’s a good job.

“Everything we like,” Stewart said. “We can make something for ourselves.”

The exchange rate helps – one U.S. dollar is equivalent to about 128 Jamaican dollars.

As for federal inspectors, “they talk to me,” Stewart said. “They come by and ask if everything is alright, and I say, ‘Oh, yeah.’ We get out paper, he gets his – ” he added, gesturing toward and smiling at Souther, who was some distance away – “so that he don’t steal from us.”

The difficult part, he said, is not the work itself, but being away from home.

“It is hard for us to leave our wives for four months,” Stewart said.

Souther said he especially respects his guest workers for what they do – long days of hard work in the dirt and sun, away from family and home. He also knows how instrumental the H-2A workers he and other farmers recruit are in producing the nation’s food.

“Labor is one of our biggest issues in the ag industry,” Souther said. “Our food does start here.”

(Elodie Reed can be reached at 369-3306, ereed@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @elodie_reed.)