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April 2007, Volume 13, Number 2

H-2A, H-2B Programs

Some 170 H-2A workers sued Florida-based Ag-Mart Produce in January 2007, alleging they were underpaid between June 2005 and July 2006 while picking tomatoes because not all of the hours they worked were recorded. The Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported on interviews with H-2A tomato pickers on March 5, 2007, noting that many said they were paid the AEWR of $8.56 an hour for their first week of work, then switched to piece rates of about $0.45 for each 32-pound bucket of tomatoes picked.

In Washington, Global Horizons sued eight former farm workers in federal court, alleging they used fraudulent or stolen identity documents in order to get jobs and cost Global money by quitting after a short time. Some of the farm workers being sued by Global are part of a 600-worker class action case against Global; they allege that Global hired H-2A workers from Thailand instead of hiring them in 2004 and 2005.

Global is using Chicago lawyer Howard Foster to sue the workers under federal racketeering laws, which provide for triple damages if a jury finds against the defendants. In October 2006, Foster sued Evans Fruit, alleging that it hired 5,000 illegal migrants over a four-year period in an effort to depress wages. In January 2006, Foster settled a similar suit against Zirkle Fruit in Selah for $1.3 million after the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals sent the case back to Yakima for trial; under RICO, Zirkle would have been liable for triple damages and attorneys' fees.

Washington in 2005 revoked Global's FLC license for failing to comply with a settlement agreement reached after various violations of state wage, insurance and safe-housing laws involving Thai H-2A workers in 2004 and 2005. In January 2007, Global sued the state, alleging that the settlement agreement violated its rights.

Global is also suing the federal government, which in 2006 barred Global from importing H-2A workers for three years because of violations involving 88 Thai workers in Hawaii.

About 15 Washington farmers hired 800 H-2A workers in 2006. A new Yakima-based organization, Washington Farm Labor Source, is offering to handle the paperwork for farmers who want H-2A workers in 2007; WFLS charges growers $800 for each H-2A worker recruited. Up to 30,000 workers are hired in the Yakima valley to pick apples and other fruit. The AEWR for Washington in 2007 is $9.77 an hour.

Southeast. Contractors are also bringing southeast Asian workers on H-2A to North Carolina, the state with the most jobs certified to be filled by foreign guest workers. The New York Times on February 28, 2007 reported that some of the H-2A workers from Thailand and Indonesia reported paying $10,000 or more for US jobs that would pay $15,000 a year and last up to three years (most H-2A workers stay in the US less than a year, but those involved in sheepherding may stay up to three years). When they arrived, most earned far less, in some cases less than $5,000.

The contractors who brought the southeast Asians to the US blamed paperwork problems that had US farmers canceling their requests for guest workers because they arrived too late. However, the farmers reported that the contractors urged them to request more workers than they needed; legal aid groups say that the US Department of Labor should have been suspicious of requests for large numbers of H-2As from southeast Asia to fill three-month jobs. DOL says it is investigating charges that the workers did not receive minimum wages.

The contractors involved, Million Express Manpower and GTN Employment Agency, said they were victims of changing employer demands for workers. Regulators say that farmers should be suspicious of labor contractors who offer H-2A workers for low or no fees, since US employers must pay the worker's transportation and provide approved housing at no cost.

The Sarasota Herald Tribune on March 5, 2007 reported there were 5,000 H-2A workers admitted to Florida in 2007, up from 1,000 in previous years, and that a crew of 30 employed by West Coast Tomato in Palmetto complained that they were not paid according to their contracts. H-2A tomato pickers are guaranteed $8.56 an hour in 2007, but many said they were switched to a piece rate of $0.45 a bucket after a week or two.

Anthropologist David Griffith's three-part, seven-chapter book, American Guestworkers: Jamaicans and Mexicans in the U.S. Labor Market, examines the effects of the H-2 program in Florida as well as in the workers' areas of origin, Jamaica and Mexico.

H-2B. Griffin Land and Nurseries subsidiary Imperial Nurseries, a major wholesaler of plants and shrubs in Connecticut, allegedly kept the documents of 12 H-2B workers from Guatemala who were recruited to do reforestry work in North Carolina. Imperial says that the problems were caused by an independent contractor, Pro Tree Forestry Services.

The workers said they paid up to $6,000 each to get the H-2B visas, but were paid only half of the $7.50 an hour promised by recruiters.

The Los Angeles Times profiled Indians brought to the US on H-2B visas to be welders on March 14, 2007; some paid as much as $15,000 for 10-month visas that promised up to $1,850 a week, to be followed by an immigrant visa. The firm that hired 300 Indians, Signal International, said that the Indians did not have the first-class welding skills they said they did, and had their pay reduced or were fired because of their lack of skills.

Some H-2B workers reported that the labor recruiters and brokers who brought them to the US did not have skilled jobs for them, and instead "rented them" to other employers, often to perform unskilled work in car washes and restaurants.

The Southern Poverty Law Center released a 48-page report in March 2007 that charged that the H-2A and H-2B programs were "close to slavery" because most temporary workers arrive in debt, their right to stay in the US depends on pleasing their US employer, and they often live and work under substandard conditions.

Devona Walker, "Guest workers' dreams hit realities in the fields," Sarasota Herald-Tribune, March 5, 2007. Steven Greenhouse, "Low Pay and Broken Promises Greet Guest Workers," New York Times, February 28, 2007. Leah Beth Ward, "Labor contractor sues state," Yakima Herald-Republic, February 26, 2007. Griffith, David. 2006. American Guestworkers: Jamaicans and Mexicans in the U.S. Labor Market. Pennsylvania State University Press. Southern Poverty Law Center. 2007. Close to Slavery: Guestworker Programmes in the United States.

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