Guest workers at risk of abuse, extortion
It's a rumor that pops up occasionally: farmers hire foreign guest workers because they don't want to pay higher wages to domestic workers.
“It shows a lack of knowledge. It's the absolute opposite,” noted Janine Duron, executive director of CITA Independent Agricultural Workers' Center.
If a farmer needs 100 workers and only has 25 domestic workers, he may contract more workers through the H-2A program. By law, he must pay the guest workers at least $9.94 an hour, according to last season's rate, which will probably increase this season.
If the farmer normally pays domestic workers $8.50 an hour, he then has to pay the same higher wage to all his workers, whether domestic or H-2A workers.
Another bit of misinformation is that the H-2A program is a pathway toward immigration to the U.S.
“If people apply for H-2A hoping to immigrate, either through employment or a job offer, that isn't the reality,” Duron said.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the guest worker is contracted to work in the country for “certain seasons of the year, usually in relation to the production and/or harvesting of a crop, or for a limited time period of less than one year when an employer can show that the need for the foreign workers(s) is truly temporary.”
However, lack of information has led to abuse and extortion of people hoping to work in the United States, Duron noted.
Some unscrupulous individuals charge fees to put workers on a H-2A waiting list but the job never materializes. And if the worker is hired, the unscrupulous individuals will usually continue to charge illegal fees, she said.
In one case, Duron recalled, a supervisor, without his employer's knowledge, allegedly charged $800 per worker for things that should be free by law, such as housing and transportation. And the supervisor was also charging them for other things, such as $20 to $30 for trips to the grocery store.
“They can't even use their money on their families, like they should,” Duron said.
This is where CITA comes in. A not-for-profit, binational farmworker membership organization, it helps guest workers avoid the risks.
“Workers should never have to pay for a job, and likely, if they are charged a fee in exchange for a job, they likely will never get it. And likely they will be charged more fees,” Duron said.
In addition, she added, farmers should know they are liable for their supervisors' actions. “It's called joint liability and they could be barred from the system.”
CITA assists agricultural employers to attain and retain a workforce while helping, training and protecting farmworkers.
For a fee, CITA helps farmers who have shortages petition the Department of Labor for permission to bring in guest workers.
The demand for guest workers is great, as Duron pointed out.
“Domestic workers are diminishing from the fields,” she said, noting that U.S. citizens typically don't want to work in the fields.
Yet she believes farmworkers are critical to protecting the nation's food supply. “If farmers don't find farmworkers, they will stop farming,” she noted.
Mexico is the first preference for guest workers because of its close proximity and intermingled culture, she added.
“We make sure workers are trained, have transportation to the site of their jobs and we make sure they get to their destinations across the nation.”
Workers are not charged. CITA currently has 7,000 member workers in the San Luis Rio Colorado, Mexico, and Yuma areas and another 10,000 workers across the nation. It has two centers, in San Luis, Son., and Yuma.
If an employer needs workers with specialized skills, like apple pickers, CITA has a group of apple pickers to call upon.
CITA also offers family support while workers are away from home, including counseling, emergency food and referral to other services.
The center will soon expand to include educational classes.
“We find workers don't know how to budget. They earn good money during the season, but then season ends and they find themselves without money. We want to teach them how to turn that money into a small business, to make it last,” Duron explained.
She invites the community and visitors to learn more about agricultural workers. CITA is available to talk to groups.
For more information, visit www.citafarmworkers.com or contact CITA in the U.S. at 928-271-5106 or in Mexico, 653-534-5537.