An H2-A farm worker picks tobacco in a North Carolina field.
  • Peter Eversoll
  • An H-2A farm worker picks tobacco in a North Carolina field.

On the heels of a proposed immigration reform now in Congress, which includes a more expedited path to residency for agricultural workers, a new report concludes that foreign workers will do jobs that their American counterparts won’t.

“International Harvest: A Case Study of How Foreign Workers Help American Farms Grow Crops — and the Economy,” was released last week by the Partnership for a New Economy and the Center for Global Development.

Written by Michael Clemens, the research and consequent analysis highlight positive elements of the H-2A visa program, which allows foreign temporary workers to legally take jobs in U.S. agriculture. The case study also focused on North Carolina and the North Carolina Growers Association (NCGA), the nation’s largest user of the H-2A program.

According to data collected throughout the decade, only seven American workers said they were willing to work in the fields.

However, advocates say the report favors industry over people, neglecting the glaring, documented violations of basic rights to many of the farmers, whether they possess H-2A visas or not.

Luis Perez, age 33, was recently stranded in Harnett County along with 20 fellow H-2A workers from Mexico. According to Perez, the group was picked up by NCGA representatives in Mexico almost one month ago and brought here by bus. Upon arrival, the sweet potato fields they were supposed to work in were not ready.

“We were left without work, all of us,” he says. “The contractor 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.”

Yesterday, Perez lamented that three weeks passed without his being paid. Even though they signed a contract guaranteeing a legal minimum of 35 hours of work per week, the employees have been idle without pay or an explanation. In three weeks, they haven’t been offered any food or a way to get to a store. Perez says they were provided accommodations in a bunk-style labor camp.

“We don’t have any support from anyone right now,” he says. “Thank God we still have food from the little money we have with us. And a clean house. Other camps I’ve been in, that’s no way to live. But we have to wait. We have no form of transportation to go anywhere, and no answers.”

The report points to the H-2A program as a legal way for American contractors to hire foreign workers without devaluing their work by paying them less.

The report states that in 2011, “The North Carolina Growers Association spent more than $100,000 to advertise farm jobs and comply with immigration laws in 2011, while it paid out just $87,000 in wages to the seven native workers who completed the season working on the farm.”

A seasonal worker typically works from May to December. This is Perez’s fifth season.

In the same point, the report states:

“The data show this is not a case of farmers preferring foreign labor because they can pay foreign workers less; no matter how bad the economy turned, there were still very few native workers who were willing to take farm jobs. The picture is clear: farms will not get the labor they need from natives alone. Without foreign seasonal workers, whole subsectors of agriculture would not exist in North Carolina today.”

Perez’s reality, however, negates the report’s claim. Perez says he and his fellow workers get paid $8.68 per hour. At the legal minimum of 35 hours per week, he would make $303.80 per week. His total earnings from May to December, at that same rate, would equal $9,721.60. For seven farm workers, that is a total of $68,051.20.

With these numbers, the seven native workers in the report receive a total sum of wages that is almost $20,000 more than those of seven farmworkers.

“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,” says Clermont Fraser, staff attorney with the Workers’ Rights Project at the North Carolina Justice Center. The project represents migrant farmworkers in impact litigation who have experienced violations of the law, usually minimum wage violations under the Fair Labor Standards Act or violations of the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act.

Undocumented N.C. farmworker Elvis Ordoñez took marched at an immigration reform rally in Washington, D.C., where he took this photograph
  • Elvis Ordoñez
  • Undocumented N.C. farmworker Elvis Ordoñez took marched at an immigration reform rally in Washington, D.C., where he took this photograph

Fraser says the report’s angle to compare foreign workers with American workers is “unfair” and an “oversimplification,” as is basing most of the research on the NCGA.

In 2011, she says, the Division of Employment Security (DES) reported more than 9000 farmworkers were referred to jobs in North Carolina. Of those, 10 percent were referred to the H-2A program.

“The NCGA is the largest H-2A employer, but most applicants seeking farm work are referred somewhere else,” Fraser says. “That means they aren’t even told of these job openings and don’t have an opportunity to decide where they want to apply or not. Why are they being steered somewhere else? I suspect it has to do with the fact that the NCGA isn’t interest in hiring American workers.”

Fraser says foreign workers are heavily discouraged from filing complaints about working conditions, usually come to the U.S. alone and are tied to one employer, while American workers have the freedom to easily switch jobs.

The report also ignores the large population of undocumented farmworkers.

“Rather than expand the H-2A or a successor program, we could ensure that the demand for an agricultural workforce is met by offering those undocumented immigrant workers an expedited path to citizenship,” Fraser says.

The Senate immigration bill gives undocumented farm workers who with a mininum of 100 work days or 575 hours eligibility for an Agricultural Card, or blue card. Workers who work at least 100 days a year for five years or 150 days a year for three years can adjust status to permanent residency. Fraser says this proposed reform comes after years of compromise between farmworker advocacy groups and agricultural interest.

Perez says that despite the unfair treatment, he is here because there are no opportunities for him to earn decent, livable wages in Mexico. He would like a way to legally and permanently live in the U.S. with secure work.

“I want a job where there is work and we don’t depend on the Grower’s Association to bring us here,” he says. “I want to be able to speak to my boss directly. And honestly. I would like to be treated better, as a person.”