Jared Culver's Picture


  by  Jared Culver

Mauritson Farms, a winery, settled with the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB) and 21 alien farmworkers for retaliation. The aliens had the audacity to complain to their boss about unfair wages and unsafe working conditions. After working for three years at the winery, the aliens met with Cameron Mauritson, manager at the winery, and informed him of their plight, which included unjustified docks in pay, lack of protection from extreme heat, and verbal abuse from supervisors. The next year they were not rehired despite Mr. Mauritson’s promise to rehire them. This highlights another aspect of the egregious widespread abuse of H-2A workers: A strict code of silence is enforced against any employee who dares to complain. If you stand up for yourself, you get blacklisted from the program.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported on the fear of retaliation silencing exploited workers. GAO also talked about unscrupulous H-2A recruiters who charged illegal recruitment and visa fees to place the H-2A workers in debt bondage. If you will be blacklisted and in debt to the people you are complaining about, it seems understandable that you’d be coerced into silence.

Remarkably, even with this culture of coerced silence, H-2A abuse stories come out, many through the shroud of anonymity. The DOL’s Low Wage/High Violation list annually lists the agriculture industry as a violator. Employees have spoken with media investigators and farm worker organizations. Some even file lawsuits to try and vindicate their rights.

This abuse is also going on within the most regulated employment visa category in the country. H-2A regulations are extensive, with multiple agencies involved at the Federal level. California, where Mauritson Farms is located, has their own extensive network of laws, agencies, and rules to oversee the worker population. While they have the agencies and laws on the books, California faces the same problem of the Feds:

“Cal/OSHA has stated that heat-related deaths can be prevented, but the agency has struggled with understaffing for years, making it harder for it to enforce its rules across California’s thousands of farms. So in many cases, the responsibility of protecting workers from heat falls solely on the employer.”

Recently, researchers found that the entire food supply chain in the United States is at high risk for forced labor. They found that 62 percent of the commodities likely to have been made under duress came from the United States. This tracks with what we have covered here. H-2A forced labor examples are growing. Mix in the scandal of child labor trafficking enabled by the Biden Administration and we are in a full-blown crisis in the interior of the United States, not just at the border.

It is not a shortage of agencies or laws that cause the widespread abuse of H-2A workers. Whenever you hear about legislation to increase labor protections, understand that those laws are only as effective as the agencies that enforce them. The numbers are the critical issue. Current staffing at agencies cannot keep up with the hundreds of thousands of H-2A workers admitted every year across the country. Many of these agencies not only are dealing with the hundreds of thousands of H-2A employees, but also with the tens of thousands more in other visa categories as well. Until we reduce the number of imported workers to fit the regulatory reality of agencies, the aliens admitted to work are at the mercy of their employers.

Meanwhile, Congress is spending its time trying to expand the H-2A program. The House of Representatives passed a bill in the last Congress to double down on indentured servitude by promising aliens amnesty and citizenship if they worked in agriculture. Senators and Representatives have recently written to the DOL to express skepticism of abuse allegations within H-2A and demand expedited approvals of H-2A petitions.

Congress seems to suffer from a delusion of a supposed labor shortage in the agricultural sector. They believe Americans do not want to do the work, while the evidence shows low wages, wage theft, unsafe working conditions and retaliation against those who complain. Do Americans not want to work in agriculture, or do they just not want to be indentured servants to the profit margins of agricultural employers?

Do we think Mauritson Farms could not find American workers because no one wants to work at a winery, or because they were abusing their workers and retaliating against any who spoke up? This seems like one of those situations where the simplest answer is probably the right one. People respond to incentives. The agricultural employers are responding to incentives as well. The incentives of the H-2A program are quite clear: It allows them to abuse the workers they recruit and threaten them with removal from the United States if they complain. The stories of forced labor, wage theft, unsafe working and living conditions, and retaliation make clear that the incentives are producing the expected results.

JARED CULVER is a Legal Analyst for NumbersUSA

Updated: Tue, Aug 29th 2023 @ 3:30am EDT

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