President Joe Biden’s Department of Labor has fined U.S. farm companies for allegedly misusing the H-2A visa-worker program to swindle American and foreign workers.
But Biden’s progressive deputies are also backing a congressional expansion of the H-2A program that would cripple the ability of many rural Americans to get fair-market wages.
On November 28, Mississippi Today reported the labor department fined 11 farms for their exploitation of the H-2A program:
“The allegations made by Mississippi Delta farmworkers are alarming,” Wage and Hour Division District’s Jackson director, Audrey Hall, said in a statement. “The outcome of these investigations confirms that employers denied many farmworkers their lawful wages and, in some cases, violated the rights of U.S. workers by giving temporary guest workers preferential treatment.”
Agents found employers paid local workers lesser wages per hour than their foreign counterparts for the same type of jobs; failed to disclose all conditions of employment, including accurate anticipated hours and bonus opportunities; illegally deducted money from visa workers’ paychecks, including costs of travel; and did not keep proper records.
But the penalties averaged out to just $5,700 per person, according to the report:
The labor department’s Wage and Hour Division fined the 11 farms a total of $122,610 and recovered wages for 45 workers totaling $134,532 in its latest string of investigations.
The disadvantaged American farmworkers include several black Americans who lost jobs and wages because the farmers preferred to import South African white farm workers. Mississippi Today reported in June 2022:
The Pitts [family farm] paid their foreign workforce nearly $12 an hour while their local workers – usually Black men – made just $7.25 to $9.50 per hour, according to a Department of Labor audit that spanned 2020 and 2021. The audit also found four local workers lost out on shifts when the temporary workers arrived.
But [Richard and Gregory Strong] and other Black workers say the pay gap existed from the first day the South Africans started at the family-owned farm several years before. Records show the Pitts started seeking foreign workers as early as 2014. Locals got an occasional pay bump on the weekends, but mostly took home federal minimum wage as the farm started giving them fewer shifts, according to years of paystubs obtained by Mississippi Today.
The Strongs and six others – who worked for the Pitts for more than 100 combined years – say they were pushed out of their jobs completely.
Breitbart News has reported how farm companies and universities are using the H-2A and J-1 visa programs to import foreign workers for tough and high-skill jobs. Those jobs would otherwise provide good wages for American families.
A significant share of the imported workers are white South Africans. But most abuses are reportedly against Latino workers.
Meanwhile, Biden supports the House-passed Farm Workforce Modernization Act of 2021.
The bill would exempt rural employers from the national labor market by expanding the corporate pipeline of H-2A foreign workers. The visa workers could be used to fill a wide variety of jobs and would be paid with reduced wages — plus the dangled, deferred bonus of American citizenship.
Visa workers tend to be more compliant, submissive, and harder working because employers have far greater power over them than they have with independent American labor. That pending H-2A legislation, for example, would give employers the power to either send the foreign workers home to poverty or to give them the huge deferred bonus of citizenship for themselves, their children, and their descendants.
The bill’s creation of this huge carrot and stick for employers would relegate the imported workers to a status similar to indentured service, which was formally abolished by the 13th Amendment in 1864.
The bill would reduce normal pressure to hire and pay Americans, or to launch high-tech investment in rural districts.
“The problem with this legislation is that it would enlarge an already dysfunctional and damaging guestworker program — and would put an amnesty on top of it,” said Jessica Vaughan, the policy director at the Center for Immigration Studies. She added:
When large farm employers depend on the government to provide cheap workers, it stifles innovation and keeps farms in an outdated, obsolete way of producingv… It is almost Soviet-esque in concept -0 there are no incentives for them to modernize, or improve, or be competitive … all they need do is make a stink and beg [the government] for more workers.
But Biden’s allies support more use of H-2A stoop labor in the 21st century.
“I support the Farm Workforce Modernization Act of 2021 and celebrate its passage,” said a statement from Biden’s White House in March 2021. ‘The Act will deliver the lawful status and better working conditions that this critical [visa] workforce deserves, as well as much needed stability for farmers, growers, and the entire agriculture industry.”
The White House statement sidelined the bill’s harm to the wages and working conditions for rural Americans.
Those workers include Gregory and Richard Strong, both of whom live in the district of Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS), who served as chairman of the House committee on homeland defense. The committee oversees the homeland defense agency that helps manage the visa programs, including the H-2A program. In March 2021, Thompson voted for the H-2A expansion bill that would allow farm employers to easily replace the Strong brothers.
Labor Secretary Marty Walsh is also supporting the replacement bill, while his junior deputies try to protect Americans from the government-created pipeline of H-2A workers from South Africa.
“Every place I’ve gone in the country and talked to every major business, every small business, every single one of them is saying we need immigration reform,” Walsh said in October. “We need comprehensive immigration reform. They want to create a pathway for citizenship into our country, and they want to create better pathways for visas in our country.”
Business lobbyists and their allies in Congress — including orchard owner Rep. Dan Newhouse (D-WA) — are trying to shove the farm workforce bill through Congress in the lame-duck session.
The main obstacle seems to be passive opposition by GOP Senators because it would also convert many migrant workers into new Democratic voters.
GOP Senators also know the bill would drain much money from rural towns by cutting farm wages. Towns would also lose money because visa workers usually send much of their wages back to their home countries. Many rural communities are already losing populations and businesses, and an opioid epidemic among underemployed people.
But the GOP Senators are under pressure from many agriculture groups that are losing market share to imported crops produced in very low-wage countries.
Many farms, especially fruit farms, are under economic pressure amid rising U.S. costs for fuel and labor. Unsurprisingly, many prefer to rely on a familiar tool — disposable unskilled labor.
Many farm companies are also reluctant to invest in unfamiliar high-tech machinery, or “vertical farming” in giant warehouses.
The bill is also being pushed by national business groups, such as the FWD.us group of billionaire West Coast technology investors, and its ally, the American Business Immigration Coalition (ABIC). The ABIC group includes many construction and healthcare companies, and it stands to gain from any inflow of new consumers, workers, and renters, and.
The pro-migration Hill.com reported on October 29:
The bill’s proponents believe the FWMA’s economic benefits could put it over the top.
“The Senate needs to pass their version of the Farm Workforce Modernization Act (FWMA) immediately. Majority of agriculture supports it. It caps expenses for the farmers, lowers food prices hammering American consumers and makes sure that we have a legal and reliable workforce for the agriculture industry,” ABIC Executive Director Rebecca Shi said.
Advocates claim the bill will deliver more prosperous farms and cheaper food, Vaughan said.
But the costs of imported labor are hidden and postponed, said Vaughan.
“It promotes a colonial system [of labor exploitation] instead of a modern import-export economy,” where U.S. investors would maximize production and revenues by investing in multiple U.S. and foreign farms — and in technology — that best produce multiple crops, she said.
“It is taxpayers who end up subsidizing this cheap labor economy,” Vaughan added:
When [farm] workers get sick or injured, or end up staying here illegally, then taxpayers must pick up the bill for all services that the [poor migrants] need to survive here.
These workers are not self-sufficient and that’s why all of these migrant service groups exist … They bring their families with them and migrate around the country and end up staying here all year, without earning a living wage and dependent on this enormous network of organizations and taxpayer-funded benefits to close the gap between the pittance of wages that they are paid and that what they actually need to survive here.
Many rural communities have already been devastated by the government’s delivery of cheap replacement labor into American communities.
“We’ve known for some time that opioid addiction was a serious problem in farm country, but opioid death] numbers like these are heartbreaking,” Zippy Duvall, the president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, said in 2017. “Opioids have been too easy to come by and too easy to become addicted to.”
But rising wages can draw people back into agricultural areas, said a 2020 report by the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond:
A dynamic, growing job market can attract new people to rural communities in search of work … [a study] found that rural counties with higher salaries and job growth were especially effective in attracting workers from urban areas, with local economic conditions having a larger effect for short distance moves. Natural amenities — think scenic landscapes and pleasant climates — matter more in remote rural places for attracting urban residents.
Younger and older Americans return from cities to rural areas for different reasons, the report noted:
Most returnees cited family reasons for returning home. Most were too young to need to care for aging parents, but many returnees decided to move back after becoming parents. Nonreturnees were more likely to be single or married with no intention to have children in the future … [while] health care access measures, such as the number of hospital beds and doctors, are also a draw for retirees. Increasing hospital capacity and hiring more surgeon specialists and general practitioners all had positive effects. Rural communities can position themselves well, therefore, by finding ways to improve access to and quality of health care.
Communities are also trying to help young people worried about local opportunities, the report noted:
Garrett County, in the western part of Maryland, is an example of a place that is trying to accomplish just that. The county established a scholarship program for all resident high school graduates to cover any remaining cost of tuition and fees at the local community college — Garrett College — after taking into account all other grants and scholarships. Since then, the program has been expanded to cover noncredit certificate programs and dual enrollment students.
However, the lobby groups pushing the farmworker bill represent the state, coastal, and national business leaders, not communities and families. They want to maximize near-term stock values and profits by minimizing payroll and high-tech investment.
Democrats back the bill simply because they expect the amnestied farmworkers to vote for Democrat-run governments, said Vaughan: “This is the transactional way that Democrats view politics … [for Democrats,] this is about creating a group of voters that will help them maintain the levers of power.”