If it was not clear yet, the H-2A program is having a slavery moment. First Pick Farms LLC is accused of trafficking foreign workers to their Michigan blueberry farm and using threats of force to coerce them to work. The foreign workers were brought to the United States to work in North Carolina. One night, they say they were roused from sleep and provided fake identification documents for their trip to Michigan. They were threatened and warned not to tell anyone about what was happening to them. Once in Michigan, they were forced to work 12-hour days for seven days a week with no breaks. Adding further insult to injury, the enslaved workers had to reimburse their employer for the cost of the trafficking trip from North Carolina to Michigan.
As for housing (required to be provided by the H-2A regulations) 30 workers were shoved in one home that was unfurnished and had just two bathrooms and one kitchen. Given the crowded conditions, many workers had no choice but to sleep on the floor after their 12-hour work week. The employer, demonstrating immense chutzpah, also charged the workers rent for the pleasure of residing in the sardine can.
While this slavery moment is occurring, Members of Congress are having the vapors about anyone mentioning it. Representative Virginia Foxx slammed the Department of Labor (DOL) for “shaming” agricultural employers and demanded they expedite H-2A application decisions. This followed Senators Bill Cassidy and Ted Budd writing the DOL to complain about accusations of exploitation within H-2A. The Senators, like the Representatives, denied there is any exploitation at all, despite the mountain of evidence. In their view, acknowledging the reality is discrimination against the real victims: the slaver employers.
So Congress is pressing for expediting the slavery pipeline and attacking DOL employees for acknowledging the exploitation. The level of denial is veering toward religious zeal. When faced with either accepting the reality of brutal exploitation or wrapping themselves in their narrative, it seems they don’t have to think twice before tossing the workers aside. Of course, it does not hurt that the agriculture industry has a well-funded lobbying apparatus in Washington D.C. The Ag Industry knows these elected officials by first name and have them on speed dial. Meanwhile, the workers might as well be Bigfoot to our elected officials-- They’ve heard rumors of their existence and perhaps they saw a blurry photo once.
This “let them eat cake” strategy of denial is clearly unsustainable. Congress may not care about the moral depravity inherent in denying slavery for the benefit of donors. However, they should care about what happens to the food supply if employers run out of people to enslave. Do they really think foreign workers will put up with slavery forever? History is full of examples of what happens when workers have had their fill of exploitation. The theory for expanding foreign workers is that our food supply depends on these workers. Lobbyists and elected officials will tell you we will all starve without expanding immigration. Underlying this scare tactic is the assumption that foreign workers are overjoyed to be exploited for cheap produce. If history is a preview, this will not end well.
The so-called labor shortage in the agricultural sector is a good indicator of the best case scenario of expanding the exploitation at the heart of the industry. It is not that Americans won’t work hard. The difficulty of finding Americans to work in the Ag industry is directly related to awful pay and worse conditions. Even when some Americans try to work, they are discriminated against for more exploitable foreign labor. Agriculture is a perennial problem on the DOL Low Wage/High Violation list. Foreign workers are just as reluctant to be exploited. They are filing lawsuits and cooperating in investigations by the media and nonprofits. If these tactics are not effective, the best case scenario is they simply stop seeking employment in Ag just like American workers. The other alternatives are more dangerous and corrosive.
Lawsuits like the one discussed above are growing in number, along with more foreign workers speaking out in private reports and investigations, because foreign workers are trying to correct the problem peacefully. Consider this the first warning sign. The evidence shows foreign workers are not content to be exploited and are attempting to resist. It is not the case that they are agreeable to slavery or that current conditions are an improvement over their home countries. They are admirably attempting to use the legal system and other legal channels to redress the egregious wrongs they have suffered. Our lawmakers need to heed this warning and address the valid concerns to nip this in the bud. The strategy of denial and exploitation expansion is only going to demonstrate to foreign workers that slavery is the approved policy of our country. If foreign workers cannot trust the legal system to right the wrongs they have suffered, then what is the next step? Make no mistake, there is no doubt that the agriculture economy is currently built on brutal exploitation. No lie lives forever. Congress and the agriculture industry needs to realize that the current trajectory is heading nowhere positive.
JARED CULVER is a Legal Analyst for NumbersUSA
Updated: Fri, Jul 14th 2023 @ 9:52am EDT