NPR report reveals the real reason why agricultural employers prefer guestworkers

A recent story from NPR’s Dan Charles titled “Guest Workers, Legal Yet Not Quite Free, Pick Florida’s Oranges,” provides a crucial glimpse into what it’s like being a guestworker in the United States. As the title suggests, it’s not pretty. The headline is probably using the word “free” as a double entendre: guestworkers are not free in the sense of the free market, nor in the sense of someone who has personal freedom and agency; i.e., is not a slave.

Guestworkers are foreign workers who are temporarily authorized to work in the United States with nonimmigrant visas. EPI and civil rights groups, farmworker advocates, and numerous media reports have highlighted how employers often prefer to employ guestworkers instead of Americans because they can be paid less and are indentured to their employers. Often, employers claim that guestworkers are doing “dirty jobs,” which Americans find so unappealing that they just flat out won’t do them. There’s plenty of evidence out there to suggest that the real reasons are much different. For instance, two recent investigative reports from Buzzfeed paint a bleak picture of the H-2A and H-2B programs (two guestworker programs that allow employers to hire temporary foreign workers for agricultural and non-agricultural jobs, respectively), documenting the ways in which these workers are indentured servants with few rights or labor protections. This happens because 1) guestworkers often arrive heavily in debt to labor recruiters who connect them to their temporary jobs, and 2) their employer controls the visa status, which means that 3) guestworkers do not have the legal right to switch employers if they don’t get paid an appropriate fair wage or if their boss breaks the law or exploits them in some other way. Ultimately, the result for guestworkers is a reasonable fear that if they complain about low pay or unsafe work conditions, they’ll get fired, which renders them deportable and means they won’t have a chance to earn back the thousands of dollars they had to borrow to pay the recruiter.

Guestworkers suffer so much that everyone from Buzzfeed to the Southern Poverty Law Center has compared these programs to slavery. My own work has shown that H-2B workers are paid less than similarly situated Americans in the same jobs. As a result, the programs create strong incentives for employers to hire guestworkers instead of Americans. The allegations in a lawsuit brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2012, which led to a $500,000 settlement, shows how far employers will go to make sure they can hire guestworkers instead of Americans:

…the company unlawfully engaged in a pattern or practice of discrimination against American workers by firing virtually all American workers while retaining [H-2A] workers from Mexico… The agency also alleged that Hamilton Growers fired at least 16 African-American workers in 2009 based on race and/or national origin as their termination was coupled with race-based comments by a management official. Additionally, the lawsuit charged that Hamilton Growers provided lesser job opportunities to American workers by assigning them to pick vegetables in fields which had already been picked by foreign workers, which resulted in Americans earning less pay…

Meanwhile, the NPR story is a gem because it provides us with an unfiltered peek into the mind of an agricultural employer in Florida who has a workforce comprised of “100 percent” H-2A workers. Forgive the long quote, but I think it’s well worth including in its entirety:

The way Justin Sorrells tells the story it began with a single moment, 17 years ago.

“We were harvesting one of our family groves, with a harvesting crew,” Sorrells says, “and directly across the street, there was another grove owner who was having trouble getting labor. So he walked across the street, went to our harvest crew, and offered them a nickel more per box to pick his oranges instead of ours. And the crew did that.”

“And that was the day my father said, ‘This is it. We have got to have more reliability in our labor force,’ ” Sorrells says.

His father could have offered the workers who had defected a little more money. But Sorrells says that would have led to never-ending negotiations with every work crew.

“We have been 100 percent H-2A since that day,” Sorrells says. “We were the first company in the state of Florida to utilize H-2A labor in citrus.”

Rarely do you get such a brutally honest statement from an agricultural employer about why he prefers to hire an H-2A worker instead of an American or a legal permanent resident. 17 years ago, his workers had the right to leave for another job that paid a higher wage. Egad! The nerve! The fact that this farmer would have to pay his workers five cents more than he absolutely had to—while admitting that he could in fact have paid them more—was so shocking that an alternative course of action had to be taken. The free market was costing this employer too much, so the obvious solution for him was to make use of a government program that ensures “reliability” in his labor force. When employers use terms like “reliability” or “stability” in this way, they are ugly euphemisms for “can’t leave before the season is over no matter what I do or how little I pay.”

NPR also deserves credit for discussing how “it’s actually hard to say who’s better off: The H-2A worker or the undocumented domestic worker,” despite the fact that guestworkers technically have a “legal” immigration status. Keep in mind, undocumented workers can be deported at any time, and are thus also scared to complain to their employers when things go wrong. Nevertheless, as an undocumented worker who Charles interviews points out, “he gets to decide how much he’ll work, and where he’ll work. Also, he points out, he has a real life here, and a family.” Obviously, there are trade-offs, which are evidenced by the fact that Esteban Gonzales, an H-2A worker Charles also interviewed, claims he prefers being an H-2A worker to being undocumented. But at least, one would think that being a “legal” migrant would translate into better wages and working conditions, right? Well, as NPR and numerous others have shown, an H-2A or an H-2B visa doesn’t always result in better, or even decent, working conditions. And when it comes to wages, EPI research has shown that on average, guestworkers and undocumented workers actually earn approximately the same wages.

No wage premium for being legal, and “not quite free”: the life of a guestworker in America. All in all, not very different from the life of an African American sharecropper in the Jim Crow era. The desire for “reliable,” cheap labor trumps the dignity and freedom of America’s agricultural laborers.