I’ve long written about working and living conditions in American agriculture. Like with everything else, COVID-19 has only exacerbated the inequality being farmworkers and consumers. The terrible, crowded, dirty, poisonous living conditions before COVID now added pestilence to the list. And the impact was deadly:
During the pandemic, this unequal system turned lethal. Only a handful of states have issued mandatory protection for farm workers during the pandemic. In April, the Trump administration declared that H-2A workers were essential to national security and increased its processing of new visa applications. However, the administration never provided updated worker safety regulations, leaving housing and transportation in the hands of the farmers. The results were deadly, in some cases. In Texas, a 48-year-old man on an H-2A visa died from Covid-related complications after his employer denied him medical care. In California, an H-2A worker died after contracting the virus during an outbreak in his employer-arranged congregate housing. Similar cases have been reported across the country.
Nonetheless, employers continue to pack workers into motel rooms and trailers, according to Lauro Barajas, the regional director for the United Farm Workers in the area around San Francisco. They frequently decline to implement social distancing on the buses that transport workers from their housing to the fields where they work. Very few offer protective gear in the cramped packing houses or adjust conditions in the field to accommodate social distancing. Health insurance, which is not a requirement for the H-2A program, remains out of reach for most workers.
Flavio felt the iron grip of his employer as soon as he arrived in North Carolina. His contract was clear—he’d work 35 hours a week on a blueberry farm, and the farm labor contractor would pay for a hotel for him and his fellow workers. But when he got there, he found out that the contractor had actually signed an agreement with another farm, more than an hour and a half away, planting sweet potatoes. The hotel he had been promised turned out to be a run-down trailer that he shared with more than a dozen other H-2A workers.
“There were only two bedrooms for 19 workers,” Flavio said. “We were sleeping on mattresses on the floor.”
After he complained to the local farm workers’ union, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, he was moved into a hotel, where he was kept for nearly a week without work or pay. In late June, Flavio was forced to quit in order to find other work. His employer had paid out less than a quarter of the total contract.
Wage theft is particularly rampant among farmers and farm labor contractors who employ H-2A workers, according to a new report from the Economic Policy Institute. Last year, the Department of Labor identified 12,000 labor violations in the H-2A program. The vast majority of those were wage violations. According to the Labor Department, farmers owed 5,000 workers a total of $2.4 million in back wages. Farm labor contractors were by far the most egregious offenders. Because many employees choose not to file complaints out of fear of retaliation, these numbers likely paint only a partial picture of the situation.
Employers have been given free rein to mistreat workers like Flavio under the Trump administration. The Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division, which is responsible for investigating labor violation complaints from H-2A workers, faced unprecedented budget and staffing cuts. In 2016, there were around 1,000 investigators; by 2019, there were just 780, according to the EPI report. At the same time, the number of H-2A workers increased dramatically—from around 135,000 in 2016 to more than 200,000 last year. As a result, even when workers manage to file complaints, there is a slim chance that they will be investigated.
Often, as a defense, farmers claim they are too broke to adequately compensate their employees or fulfill their contracts. Surely some farmers face unstable income and operate on slim profit margins. But the federal government has failed to police genuinely bad actors who abuse the H-2A system. Many farmers who commit multiple, severe labor violations have been allowed to hire H-2A workers, usually without needing to prove that they’ve changed their ways.
One reason I, like so many others interested in the American food system, was so disappointed with Biden bringing back Tom Vilsack as Secretary of Agriculture is that he will change none of the fundamentals here. He’s a bought and sold hack of agribusiness. Sure, he might not be quite as bad as Trump appointees, but the difference in farmworkers’ lives is going to be quite minor. Our food system needs a radical rethinking that actually values the human beings who grow our food as actual humans. Right now, that very much does not happen and it doesn’t look like that will be changing in the next four years.