By David Bacon
August 10th ,2019
Originally Posted in Truthout
Washington State today is ground zero in the effort to hold back the massive use of agricultural guest workers by U.S. growers, and to ensure that farmworkers, both those living here and those coming under the H-2A visa program, have their rights respected. For a second year, on August 4 workers and their supporters marched 14 miles in 90-degree heat through berry fields just below the Canadian border, protesting what they charge is widespread abuse of agricultural labor.
“Farmworker families have been living and working in local fields since the early 1950s,” according to Rosalinda Guillen, director of Community to Community, a farm worker organizing and advocacy group in Whatcom County. “But we’ve seen a big increase in growers’ use of the H-2A guest worker program in the last few years, and it’s had a huge impact on working conditions in the fields. We’ve had to feed guest workers who come to us hungry, fight to get them paid their wages, and help them deal with extreme work requirements. At the same time, our local workers find they’re not being hired for jobs they’ve done for many seasons.”
At dawn on August 4, two hundred marchers gathered in front of the immigration detention center in Ferndale, about three hours north of Seattle. Before starting the 14-mile peregrination, Guillen told the crowd that most of the immigrants detained there, and later deported, are farmworkers. “The Trump administration is targeting our local community, deporting people who have been living here for years,” she charged. “Then growers complain there aren’t enough workers, and begin using the H-2A program to bring in guest workers. It is a vicious revolving door of exploitation.”
According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s National Agricultural Workers Survey, there are about 2.5 million farmworkers in the U.S., about three quarters of whom were born outside the country. Half are undocumented and the rest are visa holders or people born in the U.S.
Last year growers were certified to bring in 242,762 H-2A workers – a tenth of the total workforce and a number that in just four years has increased from 139,832.
In 2017, Washington State growers were given H-2A visas for 18,796 workers, about 12,000 of whom were recruited by WAFLA (formerly the Washington Farm Labor Association, a H-2A labor contractor). “We predict growers will request more than 30,000 H-2A workers during 2019,” according to Washington Employment Security Department Commissioner Suzi LeVine.
The department estimated that 97,068 farm workers were employed in Washington State in 2016, so the projected number of H-2A workers would be a third of the entire workforce.