By Gosia Wozniacka
Originally Posted at Civil Eats
When Juan Antonio Lara signed up to work in Washington state’s apple orchards, he had big dreams. He hoped to make enough money working as an agricultural guest worker to build a house in his native El Salvador, so that his wife and four daughters wouldn’t have to live with his in-laws.
The guest worker program—also known as H-2A—allows U.S. farmers to hire foreign workers on a temporary basis when there aren’t enough qualified local workers available. Previously underused, it has tripled in size over the past decade as border security has tightened and the promise for immigration reform has dwindled. Most of the guest workers—known in Spanish as “contratados”—are Mexican men; Lara is one of a small number who hail from Central America.
Although guest workers represent less than 10 percent of the U.S. agricultural labor force, the program’s exponential growth will likely continue, as there is no annual cap on the number of the temporary agricultural visas and most of the applications from growers are approved. As the program has expanded, its inherent problems have become increasingly visible for workers and employers. Both farmworkers and farmers want the program to continue to grow, but want it reformed, though in very different ways.
The Trump administration last year vowed to streamline and simplify H-2A, a move worker advocates say could strip the program’s already-weak labor protections and oversight and lead to even more abuses and lawsuits. On Monday, the U.S. Department of Labor released a long-awaited proposal to update the program. The nearly 500-page document includes changes such as mandating electronic filing of job orders and applications, updating the methodology used to set the guest worker minimum wage, and strengthening the standards applicable to housing. Farmworker advocates say the proposed regulations would be harmful to both domestic workers and guest workers.
When 34-year-old Lara arrived last year for his first nine months at King Fuji Ranch in Mattawa, a small town in central Washington, he was impressed. He and three other men shared a comfortable room with heating, electricity, and warm water—a far cry from the bare-bones worker accommodations in El Salvador. And, according to the contract, he would make at least $14 an hour.
Lara didn’t earn as much as he had hoped, and his room was infested with bedbugs. Still, the dollar stretches a long way in El Salvador. When he returned to his village, Lara paid off debts and bought the property where he planned to build his home. But when he arrived in Mattawa earlier this year for a second season, the bedbugs were still there, and the itching kept Lara up at night. He said the grower pressured him and other workers to meet steep production quotas. In mid-June, Lara and two dozen fellow guest workers went on strike over the labor conditions.