July 1998, Volume 4, Number 3
Southeast: Vidalia Onions
The INS operation "Southern Denial" in mid-May 1998 apprehended 21 workers
in Glennville in southeastern Georgia, home of the $90 million a year Vidalia
onion industry. Several of the 215 onion growers applied for H-2A workers in
1997, but withdrew their applications after the Department of Labor insisted
that they would have to offer at least the prevailing wage of $0.80 per
50-pound bag of onions harvested, while the growers insisted that $0.75 for a
60-pound bag was the prevailing wage. The AEWR, the wage that H-2A workers
must earn at piecerate wages, is $6.30 per hour in 1998.
According to the growers, total labor costs are about $1.25 per bag, and
the DOL rate would have added about $1 million to harvesting costs.
Growers also lost interest in the H-2A program when they learned that they
would have to provide free housing for the 1,200 H-2A workers they were
requesting, and to offer free housing to US workers. In 1997, one Georgia
farmer obtained workers through the H-2A program; in 1998, 15 obtained workers.
The Vidalia Onion Business Council said that "H-2A is not worth the trouble,
the aggravation and the expense and the risk."
Vidalia onions are planted in the fall, grow their rings in the winter
months, expand after March, and are harvested in May and June by workers
following a tractor-pulled harrow that cuts the onions from the roots and
loosens the ground. Workers pull the onions out of the ground, clip the stems
and the roots, and then put them in 50-pound burlap bags, and are left in the
fields to begin drying. Yields average 300 bags an acre. The onions are
sorted in a packing shed, and either put into boxes or bags for sale.
The May 1998 raids were the first since 1995, when 178 unauthorized workers
were detected. The 1995 raid reportedly did not decrease the hiring of illegal
aliens because it occurred after the onions were harvested, but before some
workers received final paychecks.
The 1998 raids produced letters from local Congressmen to the INS that
complained of an "apparent lack of regard for farmers in this situation...[the
raids] threaten one of Georgia's most famous and economically valuable crops,
Vidalia onions." Senator Paul Coverdell (R-GA) complained of the INS'
"indiscriminate and inappropriate use of extreme enforcement tactics against
Vidalia area onion growers...[interfering with] honest farmers who are simply
trying to get their products from the field to the marketplace."
Coverdell in June 1998 prevented the confirmation of three DOL officials to
get DOL to agree that (1) farmers using H-2A workers could terminate the
contract, and the guarantee of at least two-thirds of promised wages, if
"market conditions" make harvesting unprofitable, (2) that employers could
charge workers $25 a person for maintenance of on-site housing, and (3) not
require employers to use FLCs to try to recruit US workers, even if FLCs are
the prevailing practice in the area.
The 1998 raids are expected to lead to an agreement between the INS and
farmers that all farmers will participate in the INS Verification Pilot
Program, they will provide the INS with the names of their farm labor
contractors and they will permit the INS free access to check I-9 forms in
In return, the INS promised not to launch surprise inspections. Several
papers called this an "amnesty" for illegal workers during the 1998 season,
since unauthorized workers currently employed are able to work for the 1998
season without fear of INS activities if their photocopied documents on file
with the employer appear to be genuine. Farmers estimate that up to half of
the onion workers may be unauthorized, but they claim that all workers provided
what appeared to be genuine documents.
Farm worker advocates complained that two worker protection standards--the
promise to provide adequate housing for migrant workers in the 1999 season, and
growers assuming liability for any violations committed by FLCs--were deleted
from the agreement between the INS and growers. Many newspapers editorialized
against the agreement. A typical editorial asserted: "The Georgia case
demonstrated that the INS bowed to employer pressure because the operation had
hit right in the middle of the onion harvest when demand for cheap labor is
Most of the workers are brought from Texas to southeastern Georgia by farm
labor contractors. Many are housed in rundown mobile homes or motels;
reporters found as many as 15 onion workers housed in one single-wide trailer.
Nearby peach growers continue to provide housing to workers, including barracks
purchased from the Warner-Robbins Air Force base.
One grower noted that migrant men were preferred to local workers: "The
problems you have with American workers are endless...If we had a bunch of
American workers, we'd have to hire someone like a personnel director to deal
with all the problems. The people we have now, they come and they work. They
don't have kids to pick up from school or to take to the doctor. They don't
have child support issues. They don't ask to leave early for this and that.
They don't call in sick. If you say to them, 'Today we need to work 10 hours,'
they don't say anything."
All parties agreed that this was a temporary fix for the 1998 season. The
head of the Vidalia Onion Council said that "the cure on this thing has got to
come out of Washington." Growers are testing mechanical harvesters that are
used in Texas and Europe; machines cost up to $100,000 each. One machine with
five or six workers can harvest 15 acres a day; the equivalent of a crew of 60
An estimated 10,000 workers are employed in the 16,000-acre Vidalia onion
harvest, including 1,200 workers who work on the 2,600 acres of onions planted
by Delbert Bland, who produces 20 percent of the 3.5 million pounds of Vidalia
onions. Bland uses 10 crew leaders to obtain workers, was sued by US
Department of Labor in November 1994 for $1.6 million, and settled for
$150,000. In 1995, Bland paid $40,000 to settle a suit by 15 migrants from
Texas who alleged that a Bland crew leader promised them work and housing that
did not materialize when they got to Georgia.
Bland is also experimenting with mechanical harvesting. A mechanical
harvester used on several hundred acres on an experimental basis can top about
90 percent of the onions, so that one operator can replace a crew of 60 to
A profile of schools in Toombs and Tattnall counties reported that both
hired bilingual aides during the April-June influx of migrant workers. One
16-year old attends schools in Texas, Georgia and Minnesota each year, and
carries her grades and records with her. Georgia provides funding based on
student counts in October and March, so the state provides few extra funds for
migrants. The federal Migrant Education program enrolled 3,500 migrant
children in 1997-98.
South Carolina berry growers reported that they had too few migrant workers
to harvest berries for one month. Mexicans began to move into the labor force
in the mid-1990s; many are from Union de San Antonio, Mexico. Local growers
say that local "kids really don't have that ability and focus it requires...to
pick fast." A second grower says that local workers "want to start at 8 a.m.
and they are out of here at 5 p.m. The seasonal (Mexican) workers try to make
as much money as possible."
Another grower, describing Mexican workers, says "They stop in and see if
we need anybody and if we're paying the right amount. Of course, you have to
pay (at least) minimum wage. They go where the best wage is paid."
Marcus Stern, "A Semi-Tough Policy on Illegal Workers," Washington Post,
July 5, 1998. Lori Henson, "Cleland promises to push for change on migrant
labor laws," Savannah Morning News, June 28, 1998. R.W. Apple, "A Georgia
onion as sweet as a peach," New York Times, June 10, 1998. "Cheap, Sweet Onions
Have a High Social Cost," Fulton County Daily Report, June 2, 1998. Ginger
Thompson, "Immigration clashes leave Vidalia onion farmers bitter," Chicago
Tribune, May 28, 1998. Lori Henson, "Debate begins to fix migrant problems,"
Savannah Morning News, May 20, 1998.