Earlier this month, the House passed the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which is intended to decrease the rising farm labor shortage in the U.S.
For many Americans, a farm labor shortage doesn’t seem like an imminent threat. All the local grocery stores still stock the strawberries, corn, and tomatoes we consume every day, so what’s the problem?
The problem is that, with a decrease in the number of field workers, farmers have had to abandon their crops–left to rot in fields–and sometimes even their businesses. According to a 2012 survey conducted by the California Farm Bureau, 71 percent of fruit tree growers and 80 percent of raisin and berry growers could not find workers to prune trees and vines or harvest crops. For consumers, this means rising produce prices. For farmers, this means losses that could not only put them out of business, but put them out of a home.
So why have we witnessed this drop in the last few years? Well, as I’m sure it isn’t hard to imagine, not many people want to pick fields. For years, the only people that Americans could find to pick fields were immigrant workers. Now, we need them more than ever.
Foreign-born farm workers, most of which from Mexico, began turning away from work in the U.S. in 2007 for a number of reasons:
- Reverse migration (migrants are actually returning to their countries)
- Improved education and job opportunities in Mexico
- Declining birthrates
- Increased risk associated with crossing the border illegally.
As Mexico began offering better opportunities for citizens, U.S. jobs began to look unappealing. And for good reason.
Farm Workers Protest
Currently, the U.S. employs the H-2A Visa Program, which allows foreign workers to enter the U.S. on a temporary basis to work farm fields when there are no local workers available.
While this program might seem appealing, it is actually unsatisfactory for both farmers and workers alike. On the farmer’s side, the program is unfair because farmers are required to provide above-market wages, housing, and transportation to workers–standards that farmers simply cannot meet. Additionally, inefficiencies in the paperwork process make it difficult for farmers to hire workers in time to pick fields.
On the worker’s side, however, the program is more than unfair.
Around the country, workers have risen up in protest against poor treatment. In 2017, an 18-year old working under the H-2A program died at a California blueberry farm, inciting protests by other workers. These workers were fired, however, for insubordination and forced to return to Mexico. At King Fuji Ranch in Washington, workers have held protests due to poor living conditions, including bed bugs in their rooms, and pressure to meet steep quotas.
Worker advocates have compared the H-2A program to the Bracero Program, which the U.S. Department of Labor once described as legalized slavery. Employed during World War II, the Bracero Program brought Mexican guest workers to the U.S. to work fields, but was ceased 20 years later due to worker mistreatment.
Obviously, if both farmers and workers think the program needs to be revised then it does. And if less and less workers are coming to the U.S. due to shrinking (or less appealing) opportunities in our country, then we need to find a solution, fast.
And the solution is the Farm Workforce Modernization Act.
Farm Workforce Modernization Act
This act, which is now under review in the Senate, will revise the H-2A Visa Program. In addition, it will provide foreign farm workers the opportunity to earn legal residency.
Under this act, the Department of Homeland Security will grant Certified Agricultural Worker (CAW) statuses to those who meet the following requirements:
- Have performed at least 1,035 hours of agricultural work during the two-year period leading up to October 30, 2019
- Were deemed deportable on October 30, 2019
- Continued to work in the U.S. after October 30, 2019
Those with a CAW status can earn legal residency after meeting various requirements, which have not yet been determined.
The act will also revise the H-2A Program in the following ways:
- Modify the H-2A minimum wage calculation method
- Specify the requirements employers must meet regarding the attempt to recruit U.S. workers before immigrants
- Require employers to guarantee minimum work hours
- Make the program available year-round
- Reserve visa allocation for the dairy industry
- Establish a pilot program so H-2A workers can apply for portable status (gives the worker 60 days to find employment after leaving a position)
- Establish an electronic system via E-Verify to verify identities and employment authorizations
- Permanently establish the Housing Preservation and Revitalization Program (will provide financial assistance for rural rental housing and off-farm labor housing).
Many people support this act, including farmers.
According to Tim Young, manager of Valleyside Farm in Woodstock, the act will clear a “pathway for these people to not hide, and come to us for jobs, and make us feel as though we’re not doing anything wrong is critical for us to keep going.”
And critical for the U.S. to keep going.
Our country depends on farmers, not only to feed us, but to support the economy via trade. For more information on the farm labor shortage (and how to solve it), check out “The U.S. Needs Farmers: It Begins with Kids.”