Be Our Guest Worker

AP Images/Eric Risberg

Luis Perez sits up on the edge of his bed, a stiff cot mattress resting on a flimsy metal bedframe a few inches above the concrete floor.

He’s in the 120-square-foot cinder block walled room that he shares with a fellow migrant worker in Angier, North Carolina.

“The television and coffee maker, that’s all his,” Perez says, pointing toward a corner where a mini-refrigerator sits. A half-empty bag of rice slouches on top.

“I know he’ll take those back to Mexico, but I don’t want to carry stuff like that with me. Or waste my money at Wal-Mart.”

He smiles broadly and laughs. With the door closed, that smile seems to be the only light in the room.

Perez is legally employed through the federal H-2A visa program, which allows foreign workers to be hired to work seasonally in U.S. agriculture. Each May for the past five years, Perez has boarded a bus in Mexico City, Mexico with about 20 other workers headed to North Carolina to plant and harvest crops until November. Hired through the North Carolina Growers Association (NCGA), the largest employer of H-2A workers in the United States, they dig sweet potatoes, cut tobacco leaves, and saw and haul Christmas trees.

This year, Perez arrived on May 17, and found himself stranded at a labor camp without work or income for more than a month. Persistent, heavy rains had flooded fields statewide, which delayed crop planting. The weather, combined with visa bureaucracy and processing requirements in Mexico, threw off the timing of the workers’ arrival and the needs of the farms.

“We were left without work, all of us,” Perez says. “The farmer picked us up from where we got dropped off and he said he didn’t understand why they brought us here if there wasn’t work to be done yet.”

That lack of work has cut into his family’s income. He’s not sure how much more he can handle. Hasta que la gente truene—it’s an expression used in Mexico that translates to: until the people crack or break, until they can’t take it anymore.

Perez waited months to receive payment. But he has been waiting five years for a change in immigration policy to allow for more flexible employment. Under the current H-2A agricultural visa program, all legally employed guest workers are bound by contracts with associations like the NCGA—150,000 H-2A visa holders live and work in North Carolina. Despite waiting for work and wages, Perez and his peers are not legally permitted to look for employment elsewhere. As immigration reform stalls in Congress, it leaves Perez and much of our agricultural workforce—both the legally employed and the undocumented—living in limbo.

Perez’s future is in the hands of Congress as it debates versions of the federal immigration-reform bill. Under proposed immigration reform, agriculture would be exempt from many standard labor regulations, furthering the industry’s control over the migrant labor force, and leaving guest workers open to exploitation.

In the Senate’s plan for immigration reform, which it passed in June, a new agricultural work visa—the W-visa—would replace the H-2A program. Workers would be contracted directly by growers designated as employers by the United States Department of Agriculture (not the Department of Labor), eliminating the contract with any association.

Growers would be required to “attest” their need for foreign workers—but not prove it—exempting agriculture from the microscope conservatives typically put immigration reform under. Much of the rhetoric against reform hinges on the view that immigrants are taking American jobs. Yet there is currently no cap on H-2A visas. The Senate bill would limit visas to 337,000 for the first five-year period.

A House version of immigration reform has stalled since June but it includes the Agricultural Guestworker Act, written by Republican representative Bob Goodlatte. Unanimously supported by the NCGA, the proposed law benefits the employer, opening the cap to 500,000 guestworkers. Workers who come to replace anyone who abandoned their employment do not count against the cap. This allows even more migrant workers into the country. According to Farmworker Justice, a national advocacy group, this change could potentially allow for more than 1 million guestworkers, including the current undocumented.

Perez and his fellow campmates say they have had trouble obtaining information about immigration reform aside from hearsay. The nonprofit North Carolina Justice Center and grassroots immigrant-community organizations have conducted Spanish-language information sessions in rural areas around the state, but none specifically geared toward farmworkers.

The House bill would give Perez the flexibility of remedying his situation by finding work elsewhere, but at a price. With the proposed H-2C visa, a worker is not provided transportation or housing. Ten percent of workers’ wages are deducted and held in a “trust fund”—workers would have 120 days after work stoppage to present themselves at the U.S. consulate and prove that they complied with the terms of the program to get that money back.

Neither plan would improve wages, create a retirement fund, or provide safer housing or working conditions for laborers who often are exposed to pesticides. Neither plan allows for legal services, nor does either make spouses and minors eligible to be legally present in the United States along with the worker.

The provisions of the Senate bill were finalized with input from both agricultural employers and advocates, including major farmworker unions like Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), United Farm Workers of America (UFW), and Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN). Compromise largely coalesced around a path to legal resident status for more than a million workers while, for a time, meeting employer demand for agricultural labor. The House bill blocks any path to citizenship, and featured little input from relevant communities.

 

Perez, like every H2-A worker, signed a contract that guarantees he will work a minimum of 35 hours per week. Workers are also legally promised a “three-fourths guarantee,” that they will be paid for at least three-fourths of the work hours promised in the contract. Because of a 2004 lawsuit won by the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, a farmworker union, the NCGA now has a Benevolence Fund. If workers go 15 straight days without a job, they receive a stipend for food and basic necessities. Perez’s camp was given four hours work after 13 days without any available labor—thus disqualifying them from any stipend—but they then went another week without a job. Perez says he still doesn’t know if he’ll be paid the contractual guarantee for the month. With the little money they arrived with, the workers bought groceries. A church also brought them food at the end of the month.

According to Perez, he and his fellow workers didn’t hear anything from NCGA until early August, when they were taken to the association’s headquarters in Vass, North Carolina and split up to different camps

“We try to make sure that we can take care of these guys,” says Stan Eury executive director of the NCGA. “If we had our way, we would have had [Perez] wait in Mexico.”

Perez’s situation is common, according to “Close to Slavery,” a 2013 report about immigrant agricultural labor by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Employers recruit too many workers, who then earn less than they were promised. “Because the workers themselves, not the employers, absorb most of the costs associated with recruitment,” the report states, “employers often grossly exaggerate their labor needs when seeking Department of Labor approval to import workers.”

Perez’s contractual obligation to the NCGA leaves him stranded in the perpetual cycle of an exploited cheap labor force for the benefit of North Carolina’s agriculture industry. Agriculture provides the state’s economy $69.6 billion annually (nearly one-fifth of the state’s income). Each farmworker contributes an annual profit of $12,000 to the state, while their average individual income is only $11,000.

But to Eury, migrant workers like Perez are getting more than a fair deal. “As we enforce the borders, the cost to sneak in is more. Some will die in the deserts. But [Perez] won’t. He’ll ride over here in an air-conditioned tour bus watching a movie.”

 

If Senate proposal becomes law, Perez could eventually have permanent legal resident status or citizenship in the U.S., although it could take 13 years. Undocumented workers would also be eligible for a “blue card” that gives them permanent legal-worker status only in agriculture. The bill’s additional W-visas, which give workers varying employment status, are approved for three years and renewable for another three. W-2 visas would be issued to contract employees with agreements to work for associations like the NCGA, while W-3 visas would free workers to leave one job for a better one, though no housing or travel reimbursements would be provided.

“It’s not our perfect bill, but given the realities of the current political climate, and the need to make concessions to reach a compromised agreement that both sides can support,” says Adrienne DerVartanian, director of immigration and labor rights at Farmworker Justice, which supports the Senate proposal.

The House bill, would create a H-2C visa, good for up to three years and renewable for 18 months at a time for farm, seafood, and food processing workers. It would the first time processors could hire guest workers for year-round jobs, but it gives farmworkers less freedom of choice and fewer worker protections than they currently have and there is no path to legalization or citizenship in the legislation. And while workers could legally stay in the country for two years, their status would be in limbo.

A well-documented history of abuse by employers of farmworkers is behind efforts toward reformIn 1997, despite reported claims of blacklists created in retaliation against farmworkers who filed complaints, the Government Accountability Office found that the Department of Labor never once denied an employer’s application to bring in workers after documented labor violations.

In April 2004, Legal Aid of North Carolina filed a suit against the NCGA, which was led by Eury at the time. The suit accused the association of maintaining an illegal blacklist of 17,000 migrant workers deemed "ineligible" and who would not be given work in the future. These workers filed complaints over their wages and working conditions., If he were to have complained in 2004, he would have risked this type of retaliation.

Today, Eury says, "We will not retaliate against Luis. If we do, you can report it."

[The House proposal] is really one of the worst guest-worker programs we’ve ever seen,” DerVartanian says, pointing out that the bill would require employers to pay either the minimum wage or the prevailing wage, depending on which is greater. Many times, it’s the latter and as low as $8 for manual labor. “It is very troubling to think what this impact would be on the workers and the communities in which they would be living.”

Nonetheless the NCGA Board of Directors voted unanimously to support the House bill and opposed the Senate version.

“Americans don’t want to do this kind of work,” says Eury of the NCGA. “The same foreign workers are going to do it in another country without the protection. “This is a better way for the workers and the growers and for the country. But we got caught in a political battle.”

Clement Fraser, staff attorney with the Workers’ Rights Project at the North Carolina Justice Center, says that this kind of talk from growers is old hat. “Agricultural employers have always argued that there are not enough workers available, when the real issue is that there aren't enough workers available at the low wages that the employers want to offer.”

 

On a Sunday afternoon, Perez is one of the only workers back at the camp. One man stirs a small pot of beans over the stove for his week’s lunch. The legumes’ savory aroma mixes with the odorous residue of bleach from the cleaning spree the night before. Because on Sunday, they rest.

Most have gone into town. Perez says he’s lucky this year. His camp is just a few miles from town—around ten minutes by car and an hour on foot.

Perez mentions his family—his wife and three young children back in Mexico City. He will see them again in December. He says he will do all he can to make sure his children go to college, so they have opportunities for a “real career.”

“I sometimes talk to them once a week, but not always. I missed my oldest, my daughter, graduate from kindergarten. I’m here for a reason, to earn a living to support my family, but it’s difficult.”

Sitting around, other men show a rash on their forearms and cellphone pictures of what happened just a few days before; a large machine swept through the tobacco fields, spraying pesticides over the leaves while they were working. A poster hangs in the kitchen demonstrating the proper attire to wear to stay safe from pesticide poisoning: long sleeves, gloves, hats. Perez says they are not supplied with any of that protective clothing.

“They don’t even tell us what they are spraying,” says one man. “Imagine that. To have some unknown chemical sprayed on you while you are working. They treat us like we are some sort of plague.”

“I want everyone to know what’s happening,” Perez says. People think we are coming here to a good place, but they should realize that this is not true. We haven’t been treated well in many camps. And to the workers who stay silent about what happens, they shouldn’t. They should work up the courage to say something about the way we are treated.”

Perez recalls an incident from a couple of years ago, his first day on the job that season. As per his usual routine, he awoke at 4 a.m. to be ready to work an hour later. He and his fellow workers were picked up from camp by a Spanish-speaking supervisor and taken to the fields, about an hour away.

“We work at such a high speed, cutting tobacco by hand. A lot of people can’t handle it. No one stops us for lunch.”

Perez carries his own cooler with water and food, but at most camps permission to stop and eat is required. That first morning, he asked the supervisor, how many hours they would work before stopping for lunch.

Hasta que la gente truene. He used those exact words,” Perez says.

Until they can’t take it anymore.

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