New survey and report reveals mistreatment of H-2A farmworkers is common: The coronavirus puts them further at risk

The irony should be lost on no one that NPR’s reporting on the Trump administration’s push to lower wages for H-2A farmworkers came out the same week that a new report was published by Centro de los Derechos del Migrante (CDM) that calls into question whether the H-2A temporary work visa program should exist at all without major reforms to protect migrant workers.

The report details the findings of in-depth interviews with 100 H-2A workers, who “reported discrimination, sexual harassment, wage theft, and health and safety violations by their employers—and a chilling lack of recourse.” Every single H-2A worker “experienced at least one serious legal violation of their rights, and 94% experienced three or more.” And before they had even arrived in the United States, many were already heavily in debt as a result of paying illegal recruitment fees in exchange for the opportunity to work in a low-wage farm job.

Thanks to numerous past media reports, government audits, and reports from advocates, the public has long known that abuses like these are common among H-2A employers. This is not simply about a few “bad apple” employers. Rather, this is largely a structural problem. Because employers own and control the visa status of their H-2A employees, H-2A workers have a powerful incentive to never complain about mistreatment: If an H-2A worker gets fired, they become deportable. That’s why one EPI study found that H-2A workers earn roughly the same as similarly situated unauthorized immigrant workers, who have virtually no workplace rights in practice.

During the coronavirus pandemic, H-2A employers should be devising safety plans and procedures and procuring additional safety and sanitation equipment. H-2A workers desperately need access to masks, gloves, and other equipment, as well ways to disinfect their hands, tools, clothing, and machinery. They also need to be able to keep a safe distance from other workers where they live and while they’re being transported to and from worksites. And since housing and transportation is provided by employers in the H-2A program, bosses of H-2A workers have a special responsibility to ensure this is the case.

Recent news reports plus the admission of at least one agribusiness representative about the cost of safety measures do not inspire confidence: They have revealed that many farmworkers and H-2A workers are currently at risk of infection and lacking basic health and safety protections. Sadly, if H-2A workers contract the coronavirus, like other farmworkers, whether they’ll have access to paid leave is an open question that will depend on the policies of their employer and the size of the farm they work on.

CDM’s groundbreaking report is a stark reminder that the H-2A program is “Ripe for Reform” and must be overhauled to ensure basic decency and fairness. But so far during the coronavirus pandemic, while the federal government has claimed that H-2A workers are a “national security priority,” they’ve yet to take any new concrete steps to ensure that H-2A workers are able to stay safe and healthy.