U.S. Department of Labor Report to Congress:

The Agricultural Labor Market – Status and Recommendations


December 2000


Executive Summary....................................................................................................................................................... 1

Introduction.................................................................................................................................................................... 2

Labor-Intensive Agriculture................................................................................................................................ 5

The Farm Labor Market: Demographic and Economic Trends..................................................... 10

Farm Worker Wages, Earnings, and Poverty Trends: 1989-1998................................................... 16

Employment and Demographic Characteristics: 1989-1998............................................................ 18

The H-2A Temporary Foreign Farm Worker Program......................................................................... 19

Administration Steps............................................................................................................................................... 21

Policy Recommendations...................................................................................................................................... 22

Recommendations....................................................................................................................................................... 23


Executive Summary


This report provides a picture of trends in the agricultural economy and suggests ways to stabilize the agricultural labor market.  Fewer farms and large farms are producing a greater share of labor-intensive agricultural commodities (tobacco, vegetables, fruits, nuts and berries, and horticulture and greenhouse commodities) to meet the demand of U.S. and foreign consumers.  These large farms, that are fewer in number, account for the majority of the production and market value growth in these important commodities.


While labor-intensive agriculture is growing, the benefits of that growth have not been shared with the farm workers.  The number of farm workers employed and the wages paid to farm workers have remained relatively stagnant.  Based on National Agricultural Worker Survey (NAWS) data, farm workers are working fewer weeks per year (an annual average of 29.3 weeks of farm work in 1989 – 1990 declined to just 24.9 weeks in 1997 – 1998) and earn an average nominal wage of just $6.18 per hour.  The demographics of the workforce are also changing.  The workforce is increasingly young, male and migrant with less experience in and intention of staying in the agricultural labor market.  There has been a trend toward greater reliance on undocumented workers, as U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents are displaced from or leave the agricultural labor market for higher paying, more stable employment elsewhere.


All of these trends point to an over supply of agricultural labor though with a larger proportion of undocumented workers.  The report concludes with recommendations for stabilizing this workforce, including:


·        Raise the minimum wage.

·        Increase resources for stronger enforcement of U.S. labor laws.

·        Congress should continue to fund “AgWork,” an Internet-based, on-line job matching system to help connect agricultural employers and workers.

·        Encourage use of available verification systems for agricultural employers to verify the legal status of workers they hire.

·        Complete current efforts and continue to streamline the H-2A temporary nonimmigrant agricultural guestworker program without weakening protections for U.S. and foreign workers.

·        Pursue bi-lateral and (under the terms of the NAFTA labor side agreement) tri-lateral discussions with countries that send farm workers to the U. S. to explore ways in which their legal rights can be better protected.




      The Conference Report for the Labor, Health and Human Services Appropriations Act (House Report 106-479) for Fiscal Year 2000 directs the U.S. Department of Labor (“the Department”) to prepare a report presenting “options to promote a legal domestic workforce in the agricultural sector; provide for improved compensation and benefits, improved living conditions and better transportation between jobs; and address other issues related to agricultural labor that the Secretary of Labor determines to be necessary.”


In response, this report:


·        Describes relevant current trends in the labor-intensive segments of the agricultural economy over the last decade (from 1988 to 1998)[1];


·        Describes demographics, characteristics and trends affecting the farm labor force[2] during the same period;


·        Outlines the current temporary foreign agricultural worker (“H-2A”[3]) program, and steps the Department of Labor has taken to streamline the H-2A certification process and improve its operational effectiveness; and,


·        Recommends steps to stabilize the agricultural labor market while simultaneously improving the lives of the nation’s agricultural workers. 


      The Department supports policies that will reduce inefficiencies in the agricultural labor market; promote greater predictability and reliability in both the labor supply and availability of work; improve farm workers’ wages, working and living conditions; better connect authorized workers to employment opportunities; increase the number of weeks farm workers are employed each year; and, in turn, increase farm workers’ earnings.  More predictable and longer-term (or better-linked) employment opportunities, improved working conditions and increased wages should help agriculture attract and retain authorized workers and bring greater stability to a labor market increasingly characterized by its instability.


      Numerous institutions, commissions, and task forces have studied the U.S. agricultural labor market over the last half-century.  This report relies on the insights of the experts responsible for those studies, and reaffirms the pervasive and persistent problems which continue to beset farm workers.  The report also recognizes that stabilizing the agricultural labor market is in the interest of the industry, farm workers and the country.


      Recent research reports on agricultural labor indicate that that the total number of hired and contract farm workers in the U.S. decreased slightly between 1990 and 1998,[4] but while agriculture’s use of hired labor has remained relatively constant over the last ten years – at an estimated 1.8 million workers – the industry’s ability to retain workers has dwindled.  The agriculture sector has replaced many authorized workers, who are increasingly leaving the agricultural labor force, with unauthorized workers, almost exclusively undocumented immigrants from Mexico.  Today, only about half of the agricultural labor force is authorized to work in the U.S.  Congress, agricultural worker advocates, and growers all agree that the status quo is untenable.


      Labor-intensive agriculture in the U.S. is harvesting more crops than ever before.  It has realized sales and productivity gains that typically would lead to increased earnings for workers in any other industry.[5]  Agricultural worker earnings, however, have decreased over the last ten years – between 1989 and 1998, agricultural workers’ hourly earnings fell in real terms (in 1998 dollars) from $6.89 to $6.18.[6]  This report presents additional data on agricultural workers’ difficult working conditions and lack of access to basic services.  According to most experts, these adverse conditions are largely a result of a surplus of agricultural workers,[7] exacerbated by an increase in the number and usage of farm labor contractors.[8]


      This report also demonstrates that U.S. agriculture is benefiting economically from increased access to global markets but agricultural workers are not sharing in the benefits of the expanding agricultural economy.  Production of fruits and vegetables has increased and global demand for American produce continues to grow, but agricultural worker earnings and working conditions are either stagnant or in decline. 


      In proper context, it is also necessary to recognize that farm workers have historically been treated quite differently under a wide array of worker protection laws.  Agricultural workers were originally excluded from the protections of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 and were only brought under its minimum wage protections in 1966.  But even then an array of exemptions were enacted in the law that, among other things, exclude some agricultural workers from minimum wage protection[9] and deny most farm workers the right to overtime pay, regardless of how many hours they labor in the fields.


      Other employment-related protections also exclude farm workers.  The National Labor Relations Act, which grants workers the right to organize and bargain collectively, excludes farm workers from its protections.  Most farms are exempt from the obligation to provide workers with potable drinking water, toilets, and hand-washing facilities.[10]  Many farm workers are ineligible for unemployment benefits and the protections of workers’ compensation insurance, despite the fact that farm workers routinely experience periods of unemployment and work in one of the Nation’s most hazardous industries.  These exclusions from legal protections have a negative impact on farm workers and contribute to the factors that discourage farm workers from staying in the industry or others from seeking work in agriculture.


      The policy options and recommendations that conclude this report would help ensure that agricultural workers share more equitably in the bounties of their labor.  The Department believes that if Congress wants to address this challenge, it will have to pursue a comprehensive solution that implements policies that address the known problems in the labor market and begin to explore additional steps, including normalizing worker protections and working conditions for farm workers.  Agricultural industry modernization and incentives to reduce its labor needs and recruit and retain authorized workers through requiring higher skills with better working conditions and increased wages need to be a part of the solution.


Labor-Intensive Agriculture


Labor-intensive agriculture in the United States – defined for purposes of this report as tobacco, vegetables, fruits, nuts, berries, horticultural and greenhouse commodities – continues to undergo a dramatic transformation.


  U.S. farm receipts for fruit and horticultural specialty crops have more than doubled – and, for vegetables, more than tripled – during the last two decades.[11]   The increased production is concentrated in fewer and larger farms.  While the total number of hired and contract farm workers is believed to have slightly decreased from 1989 to 1998, the share of farm workers employed in labor-intensive agriculture may have increased.[12]  This is particularly true in California – where the production of vegetables, fruits, nuts and berries continues to shift and where some evidence indicates that both farm labor use and intensity have increased since 1986.  Nonetheless, the significant growth in output is apparently being accomplished without any appreciable commensurate growth in the workforce.  But while the labor-intensive commodities experience dramatic output and sales growth, hired and contract labor is not sharing in the rewards of increased growth through increased wages.  Wages have been stagnant and, in real terms, have even seen significant decline.


The U.S. labor-intensive agricultural industry underwent explosive growth between 1987 and 1997.  Domestic and foreign demand for labor-intensive commodities has increased substantially, and technological developments in transportation and storage along with changes in consumer tastes and preferences that favor fruits and vegetables have facilitated the expansion.[13]


This market expansion has been accompanied by changes in the structure of the labor-intensive agricultural sector.  Fewer and fewer farms are growing these commodities on more and more acreage.  Acreage producing labor-intensive commodities has substantially increased over the last decade.[14]  While acreage and production are up, the number of farms engaged in labor-intensive agriculture is sharply down.  Between 1987 and 1997, the number of tobacco farms declined 34.4 percent; vegetable farms by 11.7 percent; and, fruit, nut and berry farms by 11.3 percent.[15]  Only the number of farms producing nursery and greenhouse commodities increased – from 37,298 to 67,816 farms, or by 81.8 percent.[16]   See Table 1.



Table 1 – Comparison of Acreage and Farms, 1987 to 1997


Labor-Intensive Commodity



Percent Change: 1987 to 1997



Percent Change: 1987 to1997











Fruits, Nuts,  Berries





Nursery &











  Greenhouse (sq.ft.)

     1,027 mill.

        sq. ft.





While the overall number of farms that engaged in labor-intensive agriculture has declined, the size of those farms has increased.  Between 1987 and 1997, the average tobacco

farm increased its acreage by over 100 percent[17]; vegetable farm by 23.2 percent[18]; and, orchard by 28.4 percent.[19]


Market sales of labor-intensive commodities increased significantly between 1987 and 1997 – the value of market sales of:


·        tobacco rose 60 percent;


·        vegetables rose  79 percent;


·        fruits, nuts and berries rose 79 percent; and,


·        nursery and greenhouse products rose 90 percent.[20] 


The concentration of production illustrated in Table 1 (above) is also reflected in the concentration of sales in the hands of a few large producers.   As Table 2 shows, a small portion of farms accounts for the bulk of sales in each of these labor-intensive commodities.[21]   The growing labor-intensive agricultural industry, whether measured by the number of farms or sales, is increasingly concentrated in a relatively small number of farms.


Table 2 – Labor-Intensive Commodities by Concentration of Market Sales



Number of Farms Producing


Farms Producing 50% of Market Sales

Farms Producing 75% of Market Sales



   1,524     (1.7%)

    5,923    (6.7%)



   4,597     (8.5%)

  11,415   (21.3%)

Fruits, Nuts, Berries


   4,764     (5.5%)

  12,461   (14.5%)

Nursery & Greenhouse


   3,459     (5.1%)

    8,602   (12.7%)


The concentration of production of labor-intensive crops is also reflected in the distribution among farms that hire labor.  In California,[23] Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Oregon, and Washington — all major producers of labor-intensive commodities — the overwhelming majority of workers are employed by a small proportion of farms in those States.  For instance, only 13 percent of California farms employed 85 percent of that State’s hired farm workers.  In Florida, a major citrus, vegetable, and horticultural producer, only 7 percent of farms employed 78 percent of the State’s hired farm workers.  Similarly, in Oregon, 7 percent of farms employ 75 percent of that State’s hired farm workers.  This is true in the other States which produce large amounts of labor-intensive commodities as well.[24]   Both production and the employment of hired farm workers are concentrated in the hands of a relatively few large producers.  See Tables 3 and 4.


Table 3--Use of Hired Labor, By Number of Farms



Farms in State

Farms with no employees

Farms with 1-4  jobs

Farms with 5-9 jobs

    Farms with10+ jobs



37,676 (51%)

21,060 (28%)

  5,841 (8%)

  9,549 (13%)



22,600 (65%)

  8,666 (25%)

  1,605 (5%)

  1,928 (  6%)



28,067 (70%)

  9,334 (23%)

  1,563 (4%)

  1,370 (  3%)

N. Carolina


30,419 (62%)

11,658 (24%)

  3,872 (8%)

  3,454 (  7%)



21,232 (62%)

 8,556 (25%)

  1,897 (6%)

  2,345 (  7%)



15,413 (53%)

 7,318 (25%)

  2,134 (7%)

 4,146  (14%)








Table 4 – A Few Farms Employ Most Farm Workers


Labor-Intensive Agricultural States

Number of Jobs 1997

Number of Farms With 10+ Jobs

Number of Workers on Farm With 10+ Jobs

Percentage of Jobs On Farms With 10+ Jobs



  9,549  (13%)





  1,928  (  6%)





  1,370   ( 3%)



North Carolina


  3,454   ( 7%)





  2,345   ( 7%)





  4,146  (14%)




While overall production of labor-intensive agricultural commodities is up – as measured by acreage, production, and the market value of sales – the number of employed farm workers has remained relatively stable at about 1.8 million.  Labor in these agricultural sectors has become more productive, growing more vegetables, fruit, nuts, berries and horticultural commodities with little change in labor inputs.[25]  But this increased productivity did not, as one

would expect, result in higher wages.  According to both the NAWS and the NASS data, farm worker wages increased nominally but lost value in real terms.[26]


The increased output was apparently accomplished with little help from technological changes in labor-intensive agriculture.  Research and development on mechanical devices used to harvest and handle fruits and vegetables in the field have been in a lull for the last two decades.  USDA’s Agricultural Research Service had 23 engineers investigating mechanical methods for deciduous tree fruit in 1971; today only one remains doing such work.  Citrus and vegetable research has also declined dramatically.  This is in marked contrast to the 1960s, in the period after the end of the Bracero program, when intensive research efforts resulted in effective mechanical harvesters for processing tomatoes, cling peaches and other crops.  But with the continued supply of cheap labor, research and development of capital-intensive but labor-saving devices slowed and, in some cases, reversed the use of mechanical aids in labor-intensive agriculture.[27]  Thus, impressive productivity gains in labor-intensive agriculture apparently have been accomplished with little help from mechanical labor-saving devices.


Of course, labor-intensive crops obviously use a disproportionate share of hired and contract labor.  Tobacco, vegetables, fruit and tree nuts, greenhouses and nurseries account for only one-fifth (20.4 percent) of the 877,532 U.S. farms reporting direct hire or contract labor expenses during 1997, and only 9.3 percent of all farms.  However, this relatively small percentage of farms incurred more than half (52 percent) of the cost of such labor – these labor-intensive commodities incurred 48.4 percent of all hired farm worker costs and fully 70.5 percent of all contract labor costs.[28]   


The Farm Labor Market: Demographic and Economic Trends


      Just as the production of labor-intensive agricultural commodities has undergone substantial changes during the last decade, those who work in this sector have also experienced significant changes in wages, working conditions, employment, and stability.  By most objective measures, workers who cultivate and harvest these labor-intensive commodities are faring substantially worse than in 1988 when the National Agricultural Worker Survey (NAWS) began collecting data on a wide range of economic and demographic trends in labor-intensive agriculture.


      A census (or “head”) count of agricultural workers generally – and labor-intensive agricultural workers specifically – does not yet exist.  Based on a number of different data sources, the Commission on Agricultural Workers in 1992 reported that the number of individuals employed for wages on U.S. farms sometime during the year was approximately 2.5 million.[29]  According to the 1997 Census of Agriculture,[30] the level of employment in agriculture did not change significantly from the 1992 level.[31]  Approximately 72 percent, or 1.8 million, of these workers are employed on crop farms.[32]  The NAWS surveys these hired crop workers and periodically reports on economic and demographic characteristics of this workforce.[33] 


      While the level of employment in agriculture has remained stable, the NAWS data from 1989 through 1998 reveals that the demographic and employment characteristics of farm workers have changed substantially, and for the worse – they generally reflect a labor market with poor living and working conditions.  Only in a few areas have working conditions for farm workers improved.  For example, in 1997-1998 (compared to 1989-1990) there was a modest increase in the number of farm workers who reported having access in the fields to toilets, as well as to potable water for drinking and washing.  But by most measures, farm workers were worse off in 1998 than they were in 1988.  In 1997-1998, farm workers found fewer weeks of employment, earned less per hour in real terms, continued to have poverty level earnings, and were less likely to utilize public assistance/programs designed to help ameliorate the effects of poverty on the working poor.


      NAWS findings of lower real wages, un- and under-employment, and low annual incomes of U.S. crop workers are all indicators of a national oversupply of farm labor.  These same factors contribute to the instability that characterizes the agricultural labor market, as workers exit farm labor in search of jobs paying higher wages, offering more hours of work, and offering more steady and predictable employment.  This creates a vicious cycle in which workers are economically driven out of the agricultural labor market, only to be replaced by new entrants whose competition in the market maintains oversupply and makes improvements in wages and working conditions unnecessary – and who themselves soon feel compelled to leave.


      One measure of instability is the change in the percentage of farm workers who are newcomers.[34]   In 1989-1990 (soon after over 1 million farm workers were granted legal residence status through the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act’s (IRCA) Special Agricultural Worker program), just five percent of the crop labor force consisted of newcomers, compared to 30 percent in 1997-1998. Another measure of stability is the number of years that a farm worker intends to remain working in agriculture.  In 1989, 29 percent of those interviewed stated that they intended to exit the farm workforce within five years, compared to 50 percent in 1997-1998. 


      Worker replacement – or displacement – is and has been a hallmark of the farm labor market.  Over the period 1989-1998, the replacement was really a substitution of newly arrived and unauthorized workers for U.S. citizen and legalized Special Agricultural Workers (SAWs).  In 1989, soon after the passage of IRCA and its legalization program for farm workers, unauthorized workers comprised only eight percent of the farm labor force, compared to 51.5 percent in 1998.  Over the same period, the percentage of SAW workers decreased from 37 to 15 percent (see Chart 1).  One farm labor researcher noted that, “The movement of SAWs out of agriculture almost exactly matches the increase in unauthorized farm workers since the late 1980s.”[35]  U.S. citizen farm workers have also been displaced from or exited the agricultural labor market in great numbers.  In 1989-90, U.S. citizens comprised 43 percent of all crop workers, compared to just 22 percent in 1997-98 (see Chart 2).  Instability in this labor market is due, in part, to agriculture’s failure to create the working and living conditions necessary to attract and retain skilled, experienced farm workers.  It may also be attributable, in part, to increased competition from newcomers willing to work for much less and under much harsher conditions than those they replace in the agricultural labor market.  And these factors operate in an environment of substantial economic growth and broader prosperity of the last seven years that provide abundant opportunities for better jobs outside of agriculture.


Text Box: Composition of U.S. Agricultural Labor Force






Farm Worker Wages, Earnings, and Poverty Trends: 1989-1998


      Over the period of the 1990s – with a strong economy and greater, increasingly widespread prosperity – farm worker wages have lost ground relative to those of workers in the private, non-farm sector.  Between 1989 and 1998, the average nominal hourly wage of farm workers rose only 18 percent (from $5.24 to $6.18), while the wages of workers in the private non-farm sector increased by 32 percent.[36]  Consequently, farm workers went from earning 54 percent of the average hourly wage for all production workers in 1989 to earning just 48 percent of that wage in 1998 (see Chart 3 – above).


      But farm workers not only lost ground relative to other workers in the private sector, they lost ground absolutely.  Adjusted for inflation, the average real hourly wage paid to farm workers – in 1982-1984 dollars – dropped from $4.27 to $3.87.  Consequently, farm workers lost over 10 percent of their purchasing power over the last decade (see Chart 4).[37]  Given the prosperity in



the larger U.S. labor market and the degraded wages in agriculture, instability in the agricultural labor market should come as no surprise.


Compounding the low wage is the inability of farm workers to find enough employment. Over the ten-year period of 1989-1998, the amount of agricultural employment that farm workers were able to obtain per year declined.  In 1989-1990, farm workers were employed, on average, 29.3 weeks per year in agriculture; in 1997-1998, the average number of weeks dropped to 24.9.  Even during months in which the demand for farm labor peaks, many farm workers are not employed in agriculture – in July 1997, only 56 percent of all crop workers had a farm job.


Earning less per hour (in real wages) and working fewer weeks per year, it is not surprising that the median personal and family incomes of farm workers have remained low and unchanged since 1989-1990.  Over the ten-year period, the median personal income has remained between $5,000 and $7,250, and family income has remained between $7,500 and $10,000.  While nominal income levels have not changed, more farm workers in 1997-1998 earned below the minimum wage than in 1989-1990 (9.0% vs. 6.9%, respectively).  Additionally, more farm workers had below poverty level incomes than in prior years.[38]


Farm workers’ average hourly nominal wage of $5.24 in 1989 was then 86 percent of the wage necessary for a full-time worker to support a family of four at the poverty threshold.  In 1998, farm workers’ hourly nominal wage of $6.18 was only 77 percent of the poverty threshold for the same four-person family.[39]


Employment and Demographic Characteristics: 1989-1998


      Instability in the farm labor market is also reflected in other changes in the demographic and employment characteristics of farm workers.  The labor market is increasingly young, male, and migrant.  These demographic changes have occurred at the same time that farm worker employment, wages, and earnings have declined.


      While demand for fresh fruit, vegetable, and horticultural commodities – and the production of these commodities – continues to increase dramatically, employment practices in this labor market are undergoing a transformation that is cause for alarm.  Historically, labor law abuses have been more common among workers engaged by farm labor contractors than those employed directly by the farmer.  Much of the federal and State legislation enacted to protect farm workers is directed at policing the misconduct of farm labor contractors.  But despite these efforts, the use of farm labor contractors in the labor-intensive commodities has increased during the last decade.  Farm workers engaged by farm labor contractors increased by 52 percent, from 17 to 26 percent of all crop workers.  This trend may well have dramatic consequences for farm worker living and working conditions in the future.


      Other measures of instability are also going up.  Women are much less common in the agricultural labor market today and represent a much smaller percentage than in the broader labor market.   Women constituted 28 percent of all crop workers in 1989-90 compared to only 20 percent in 1997-98.  The median age of farm workers has remained constant at around 30 years old even as the broader labor market ages.  In 1998, in the non-farm private labor market, 39 percent of workers were under 35 years old, whereas among crop workers 67 percent were under 35.  Another dramatic change is the significant increase in migrancy, from 32 percent in 1989-90 to 56 percent in 1998. 


      The average number of years working for the current agricultural employer went from 4.8 in 1989-90 to 3.1 in 1997-98.  The percentage of workers employed seasonally, rather than full-time, increased during the same period, from 64 percent to 85 percent.  Both are indicative of a labor market in which stable, long-term employment continues to diminish significantly.


      Other employer-provided benefits that could help stabilize the workforce and induce workers to remain in this industry are also on the decline.  The percentage of farm workers whose employer provided paid holidays and/or vacation dropped from 26 percent in 1989-90 to only 11 percent in 1997-98.  Only 6 percent were provided with health insurance.  More workers are paying for transportation to and from work, from 13 percent in 1989-90 to 34 percent in 1997-98.  Finally, the percentage of workers whose meager wages were supplemented with a cash bonus declined from 25 percent in 1989-90 to only 15 percent in 1997-98.


      Despite the low wages and below poverty annual earnings, farm workers rarely access the safety net intended to cushion the blow of poverty for the working poor.  For instance, in 1997-98, only 20 percent of all farm workers reported that they or someone in their family received unemployment insurance (UI) within the past two years. [40]  Only 10 percent received benefits from the Womens, Infants, and Children program; only 13 percent received Medicaid benefits; and only 10 percent received Food Stamps.  For a population so mired in poverty, these rates of utilization are extremely low. 


      The NAWS paints a very grim picture of the conditions under which farm workers live and work.  Low wages, sub-poverty annual earnings, significant periods of un- and underemployment, and low utilization of safety net programs all add up to a labor force in significant economic distress.  In addition, the continued, constantly replenished oversupply of workers will not allow the market conditions necessary to give farm workers sufficient labor market leverage to substantially change these conditions.


The H-2A Temporary Foreign Farm Worker Program


      The H-2A “guest worker” program admits temporary nonimmigrant workers to provide farmers with an adequate supply of laborers during peak periods in the growing season, if there is an inadequate supply of domestic workers.  While use of the H-2A program has been growing over the last decade, and it is being used in more areas and crops, only a tiny portion of U.S. agricultural labor needs is met through the H-2A program.  It is not surprising that the H-2A program is and has been a relatively small source of agricultural labor given the evidence of significant oversupply of farm workers, including the growing portion of undocumented workers.


      While the bulk of H-2A workers have historically and are currently used in the Southeast, there has been a shift in H-2A usage in the past ten years.  The Southeastern States still account for approximately 70 percent of the H-2A usage.  But over the last decade, the predominant crop activity where H-2A workers are used has shifted from Florida sugar cane to tobacco in North Carolina, Virginia, and Kentucky.  The State of Florida was the top user of H-2A workers through 1991 in the hand harvest of sugar cane.  With the mechanization of the sugar cane harvest, dependency on H-2A workers dropped significantly starting in 1992 and essentially ended there by 1995.  Since then, the States of North Carolina and Virginia have been the primary users of H-2A workers in the production of tobacco, and tobacco continues to be the primary focus of H-2A usage.  In fact, of the top five States using H-2A workers – North Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, Kentucky and New York – the production of tobacco in North Carolina, Virginia and Kentucky accounts for 42 percent of all H-2A workers.  Other top crop areas where H-2A workers are currently used include vegetables (in North Carolina and Georgia) and apples (in New York and New England).


There has also been a shift in the sources of H-2A workers – H-2A workers now come predominately from Mexico with some coming from Guatemala, El Salvador and other Central American countries.  When Florida sugar cane was the largest user of the H-2A program, most H-2A workers came from Jamaica and other Caribbean nations. 


      While a relatively minor supplier of farm labor, the H-2A program has undergone substantial growth during the last ten years.  The H-2A program certified 23,745 jobs in 1988 compared to 34,898 in 1998, an increase of nearly 50 percent.


The Department has been working to reengineer and streamline the H-2A program to ease application burdens while maintaining effective worker protections.  The Administration’s guiding principles in reforming the H-2A program are to create a system:


·                    with procedures that are simple and the least burdensome for growers;


·                    which assures an adequate labor supply for growers in a predictable and timely manner;


·                    that provides a clear and meaningful first preference for U.S. farm workers and diminishes reliance on foreign workers;


·                    which avoids the transfer of costs and risks from businesses to low-wage workers;


·                    that encourages longer periods of employment for legal U.S. workers; and,


·                    which assures decent wages and working conditions for domestic and foreign farm workers, and that normal market forces work to improve wages, benefits, and working conditions.


In June 1999, the Department published a final regulation completing an earlier proposal to shorten the deadline when employers must file H-2A applications from 60 to 45 days before the date when workers are needed, and modified the requirement that certified H-2A employers provide notice of the date on which H-2A workers departed for the place of employment.  Additionally, the McConnell Amendment, which went into effect on June 29, 1999, requires that H-2A labor certifications now be issued 30 days before the date of need.


Earlier this year, the Department established a section on its Web Site for H-2A employers, who can now access information about the H-2A program and the necessary forms for processing an H-2A application on-line.


Additionally, the Department of Labor and the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) worked jointly on regulations to further streamline the H-2A program.  This new regulation, published in the Federal Register in July 2000, delegates from INS to DOL authority to adjudicate certain H-2A petitions – those filed on behalf of workers located outside of the United States.  To implement the delegation of authority and to further streamline the H-2A process, ETA is developing a form that allows an employer to submit a consolidated application that includes all of the information concerning the labor certification application and the petition.  The consolidated form will eliminate an employer’s need to submit multiple forms to multiple agencies and greatly reduces the paperwork burden associated with the H-2A program.  In summary, the time it currently takes the two agencies to make final determinations on the labor certification application and petitions will be greatly reduced, potentially eliminating weeks from the process.


      The Administration has also sought additional resources to build and implement a new Internet-based job service for the use of agricultural employers and farm workers.  While the Congress did not approve the President’s funding request for FY 2000, he asked again – for $10 million – in FY 2001, which the Congress recently approved, and the Department of Labor committed $1 million during FY 2000 to pilot-test this new system.


      Called “America’s Agricultural Labor Network” – or “AgWork” – this new system is intended to be an Internet-based electronic tool that will facilitate the recruitment of farm workers by growers and the movement of farm workers to areas with employment needs.  It will be both an information system and a labor exchange tailored to meet the needs of the agricultural economy.  As an information system, it must be easy to use and meet the basic requirements of the users – both workers and growers.  As a labor exchange, its potential success depends on both parties to the eventual hiring – again, growers and workers – because their participation in the system is voluntary.


      AgWork holds the potential to be a new and powerful resource for employers seeking agricultural workers and for those seeking agricultural jobs.  It will provide a medium for farm workers or their agents to post work experience, availability, and the types of job opportunities being sought in the system; to search for available job opportunities; and, to have the system dynamically match worker information against potential job opportunities.  A farm worker or his/her agent will be able to keep track of his/her own posting and to have the system search out new opportunities that may meet the worker’s specifications as new job opportunities are listed. 


      AgWork will enable growers, on a self-service or assisted basis (for example, through an association) – to enter the system to post jobs and search for candidates that have valid social security numbers.  The grower will be able to keep track of his/her own job orders and have the system search out new applicants as they are listed on the system. 


      Built on the model of “America’s Job Bank” and “America’s Talent Bank,” this approach is largely untested – and certainly unproven – in the agricultural labor market where there are a variety of prodigious challenges and obstacles to overcome.  But one key element in ensuring job opportunities for legal U.S. farm workers – and extending the duration of their employment, thereby raising annual earnings – is to have a better job matching system for agricultural employment.


Administration Steps


In addition to efforts to simplify and streamline the H-2A application process, the Department has increased its efforts to protect and promote the interests of U. S. farm workers through education and outreach to the agricultural community and enhanced labor standards enforcement. 


The Fair Harvest Safe Harvest campaign is aimed at educating farm workers about their rights under Federal law.  The Department also reaches out to growers and agricultural associations concerning their obligations to farm workers with respect to wages, safe transportation, safe housing and field sanitation.  The Department in enlisting employers, employer organizations, unions, employee organizations and advocacy groups as partners in its efforts to promote voluntary compliance through education of farm workers and their employers.


The Department has stepped up its efforts to protect farm workers through vigorous enforcement of the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act and field sanitation requirements under the Occupational Safety and Health Act.  The Department has sought, obtained, and deployed additional resources to more effectively enforce these laws in the agricultural sector.  And it has used these resources to target enforcement in “Salad Bowl” commodities (garlic, tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, and onions), expanding use of the “Hot Goods” provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act, application of “joint employment” principles and certificate revocation of those farm labor contractors who repeatedly violate the law. 


Policy Recommendations


      The information presented in this report illustrates the significant employment challenges facing the agricultural sector:


·        agricultural employers want a reliable labor supply that reduces their business risk without substantially increasing their labor costs, which growers perceive may place them at a competitive disadvantage in the global economy;


·        too many agricultural workers live and work in deplorable conditions; and,


·        important labor-intensive segments of the agriculture industry continue to grow without parallel improvements in wages, benefits, and working conditions to levels that attract authorized workers.


Public policy approaches to addressing these important, vexing and persistent challenges should focus on (1) decreasing the industry’s reliance on workers willing to accept near or below poverty-level wages and often hazardous working conditions, (2) more effectively enforcing our nation’s labor laws, (3) enhancing worker protections and access to services, and (4) encouraging the utilization of fewer but higher-skilled workers through adoption of modern management techniques and mechanization.


      Many of the policy options currently proposed for stabilizing the agricultural labor market range from essentially legalizing the practices that provide the agricultural industry with a low-cost and largely powerless surplus labor supply, to imposing anti-immigration measures that would potentially endanger lives on the U.S.-Mexico border.  The Department, however, believes there must be a better solution.  The Department recommends that careful consideration be given to policies that will benefit agricultural workers and other low-wage workers.


      The Department recognizes that these changes may – at least in the short-term – raise agricultural labor costs, and urges Congress to consider ways in which to assist the industry during a period of transition.  The Department also recognizes that agricultural workers face unique challenges resulting from the geographical, political, and cultural distances between them and the majority of Americans, and urges the Congress to consider ways to better integrate recent migrants into American communities through improved access to targeted social services.




1.                                 Congress should raise the minimum wage by $1 an hour over two years.


For many migrant and seasonal farm workers who work for wages at or near the minimum wage, this increase would make a significant difference in their ability to earn enough to support themselves and their families.


2.                  Increase resources for stronger enforcement of U.S. labor laws.


           The Department of Labor is committed to ensuring that all workers are adequately protected, both by the law and its effective enforcement.  However, labor law violations are still common in agriculture – as well as other low-wage industries increasingly dependent on a workforce largely comprised of recent immigrants, both legal and illegal.  Increased funding and Congressional support for strong labor law enforcement will ensure that the Department can effectively focus on and deploy adequate resources to address those employers which pay less than legal wages and provide substandard, often intimidating work environments.


3.   Congress should continue to fund “AgWork,” an Internet-based, on-line job matching system to help connect agricultural employers and workers.


In the FY 2001 budget, Congress funded the Administration’s request for $10 million to build and implement AgWork.  AgWork will be both an information system and a labor exchange tailored to meet the needs of the agricultural industry.  Workers will be able to post work experience and the types of opportunities they seek; search for jobs; and have the system match worker information against that submitted by employers.  Employers will be able to post jobs and search for legally authorized workers.


4.      Encourage use of available verification systems.


The Administration and Congress should work together to increase growers use of automated verification systems thereby increasing growers’ confidence in and reducing their business risk associated with their workers’ immigrations status.


5.      Complete current efforts and continue to streamline the H-2A temporary nonimmigrant agricultural guestworker program without weakening protections for U.S. and foreign farm workers.


6.      Pursue bi-lateral and (under the terms of the NAFTA labor side agreement) tri-lateral discussions with countries that send farm workers to the U.S. to explore ways in which their legal rights can be better protected.


In the longer term, most attention to date has been on paths that have been tried in the past that have met with limited success to “promote a legal domestic workforce in the agricultural sector.”


One path, tried in 1986 in the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), would be to legalize the current population of unauthorized agricultural workers and create a legal domestic workforce, with full rights in our society, out of an illegal one.  Legalization of the unauthorized agricultural labor force may have many positive benefits, but experience indicates that long-term stability in the agricultural labor market is not among these benefits.  Only a decade after IRCA legalized more than one million “special agricultural workers,” only a fraction of this population remains employed in U.S. agriculture having been replaced by a new population of unauthorized workers.


A second avenue, being considered in some Congressional proposals, would be to attempt to legalize the current flow of unauthorized foreign workers into agricultural jobs in the U.S. by substantially easing agricultural employers’ obligations (compared to the existing H-2A program) to temporary foreign workers.  This approach would not create a legal domestic agricultural workforce, but rather a legal temporary foreign labor force.  Almost certainly – and fairly quickly – this approach would lower wages and working and living conditions in agricultural jobs resulting in fewer domestic workers continuing employment in agriculture and perpetuating the industry’s dependence on a foreign labor force.


A third route, that has not been tried, would be to increase wages and improve working conditions in farm jobs by normalizing legal protections for farm workers and increasing mechanization such as that undergone by the sugarcane industry.  This could attract U.S. workers to meet agriculture’s labor needs and may also result in a smaller but much more productive agricultural labor force without a continuing flow of large numbers of less skilled, unauthorized foreign workers. 



[1]   Industry data is principally drawn from the 1987 and 1997 Census of Agriculture, United States Summary and State Data, Volume 1, Geographic Series, Part 1.

[2]   Agricultural worker data contained in this report is primarily drawn from the National Agricultural Worker Surveys (NAWS) – A Demographic and Employment Profile of United States Farmworkers; Research Reports Nos. 1 – 8 (1989 – 1998).  The NAWS is a nationwide, random survey of agricultural workers regarding their demographic and employment characteristics.


[3]   The H-2A program is authorized by the Immigration and Nationality Act (Section 101(a)(15)(H)(ii)(A).  It was first authorized as the H-2 program in 1952 and amended as the H-2A program in 1986. 

[4]   One report found that the number of workers engaged in crop or livestock production (including contract workers) decreased by 1.2 to 1.4 percent between 1990 and 1998, and that the number of crop workers whom growers hired directly increased by 9.3 percent over the same period.  See Levine, Linda, “Farm Labor Shortages and Immigration Policy,” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, December 20, 1998, page 8.  Another report found that the total number of hired and contract farm laborers decreased by 3.7 percent between 1990 and 1998.  See Runyan, Jack L., “Ten Years of Farm Labor Contracting,” paper presented at The Changing Face of Rural America Conference, September 4, 1999, Davis, CA, Table 2, page 7.  GAO reported that the total peak employment of hired and contract farm workers decreased by 6 percent between July 1986 and July 1997.  See U.S. General Accounting Office, GAO/HEHS-98-20, H-2A Agricultural Guestworker Program, December 1997.


[5]   One measure of productivity or efficiency growth is total factor productivity (TFP) – the ratio of real total output to real total input under the control of farmers.  Between 1986 and 1996, the average annual percentage change in TFP for U.S. agriculture was 2.18.  See Huffman, Wallace E., “Changes in the Labor Intensity of Agriculture: A Comparison of California, Florida, and the Whole United States,” paper presented to The Dynamics of Hired Labor: Constraints and Community Response Conference, October 1999, Concordville, Pa.


[6]   Findings from the National Agricultural Worker Survey (NAWS) - A Demographic and Employment Profile of United States Farmworkers.  Research Reports No. 1- 8.

[7]   Commission on Agriculture Workers.  Report of the Commission on Agricultural Workers. U.S. Government Printing Office, November 1992.

[8]   The number of farm labor contractors (FLCs) registered in the U.S. increased 21 percent between 1989 and 1998, from 10,224 to 12,359.  In the Department of Labor’s Western Region, with jurisdiction over California, Washington, and Oregon (among other States), the number of registered FLCs increased during this period by 61 percent, from 3,537 to 5,697.  See Runyan, Jack L., “Ten Years of Farm Labor Contracting.”


[9]   According to data in the 1997 Census of Agriculture (Table 5, page 232), more than 1 million farm worker jobs may be exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act’s minimum wage requirements under the Act’s “500 man-day” exemption.


[10]  The OSHA field sanitation standard only applies to farms employing 11 or more workers during any calendar quarter during the preceding 12 month period.  Of the 650,623 farms that employed hired farm workers, only 56,367 – or about 9 percent – employed as many as 10 workers.  1997 Census of Agriculture, Table 5, pg. 232.


[11]   “The Future of Agricultural Labor”, Statement of Monte Lake and Dr. James S. Holt on behalf of the National Council of Agricultural Employers, February 25, 2000.


[12]   Regarding the decrease in the number of farm workers overall compared to the increase in number of farmworkers in labor-intensive commodities, see footnotes 4, 25 and 26.


[13]    Lake and Holt.


[14]  1987 Census of Agriculture Tables 27-30, pgs. 353- 404 ; 1997 Census of Agriculture, Tables 29-33, pgs. 462-517.


[15]   Census of Agriculture table 2, page 12.


[16]   Census of Agriculture table 2, page 12.


[17]  The Census of Agriculture reported 136,682 tobacco farms in 1987 with 633,310 total acres or an average of 4.63 acres per farm.  In 1997, there were a total of 89,706 tobacco farms consisting of 838,530 total acres or an average of 9.35 acres per farm, an increase of 100% over 1987. 1997 Census of Agriculture table 1, pg. 11


[18] In 1987, there were 60,819 vegetable farms with 3,467,563 total acres, averaging 57.01 acres per farm.  In 1997, there were 53,727 vegetable farms consisting of 3,773,219 acres or 70.23 acres per farm, an increase of 23%.  1997 Census of Agriculture table 1, page 11.


[19] Orchard size increased by 28% from 1987 to 1997, from 120,434 orchards consisting of 4,560,163 acres in 1987 to 106,069 orchards consisting of 5,158,064 acres in 1997.  1997 Census of Agriculture table 1, pg. 11.


[20]   1997 Census of Agriculture Table 2, pg. 12.


[21]   1997 Census of Agriculture, Table 45, pg. 51.


[22]   The difference in the total number of tobacco and vegetable farms reported in Tables 1 and 2 reflect differences in the source tables in the Census of Agriculture.


[23]  California – by far the biggest producer of vegetable, fruit, nut and berry commodities – saw its share of market sales increase significantly despite its already dominant position.  In 1987, California produced 39.7 percent of vegetable sales; in 1997 it produced 47.8 percent.  Its share of fruits, nuts and berries production increased from 53.4 percent in 1992 to 61.7 percent in 1997.  California’s dominance in these commodities was accomplished by a relative handful of farms – only 4,488 vegetable farms (8.4 percent of all U.S. vegetable farms) and 33,004 fruit, nut and berry farms (38.3 percent of the national total).  California’s large vegetable farms averaged $895,565 in market sales compared to $89,158 for the rest of U.S. vegetable farms; California fruit, nut and berry farms averaged market sales of $237,024, compared to $91,326 for the rest of U.S. fruit, nut and berry farms.


[24]   Georgia ---------------------6% of farms employ 56% of hired farm workers;

     North Carolina-------------7% of farms employ 60% of hired farm workers; and,

     Washington---------------14% of farms employ 88% of hired farm workers.

        (1997 Census of Agriculture, Tables 5 and 6, pgs. 232-249.)


[25]  There have been shifts in labor utilization in agriculture with the labor-intensive commodities using an increased percentage of all hired and contract labor.  This is particularly true in the West – California, Washington, and Oregon.  The General Accounting Office (GAO) looked at two of the labor-intensive commodities – fruit and vegetable production – and found that:


·         From 1986 to 1995, total acreage in these two commodities increased by 9.6 percent, from 5.75 to 6.3 million acres;


·         From 1986 to 1995, total production increased by 30.1 percent, from 46.7 to 60.8 million short tons;


·         From 1986 to 1995, the total value of production increased by 51.6 percent, from $9.98 to $15.1 billion; and,


·         From 1986 to 1997, total peak employment of direct hired workers (excluding contract labor) decreased by 15.9 percent, from 1.2 to 1.07 million workers.


GAO/HEHS-98-20 H-2A Agricultural Worker Program; December 1997; Appendix III, Table III.5, page 98.


[26]  The Census of Agriculture provides data on the expense of hired and contract farm labor – which is not the same as wages paid hired and contract farm labor.  Between 1992 and 1997, the total expense of hired and contract labor for all reported commodities increased by 40%.  Hired and contract labor expense in labor-intensive agricultural commodities increased by 75%.  1992 Census of Agriculture, Table 53, pages 128, 129;  1997 Census of Agriculture, Table 51, page 144.


[27]   "What Kind of Transition Is Necessary to Secure the Future of U.S. Fruit, Vegetable, and Horticultural Agriculture?",  Richard Mines, Labor Management Decisions, Volume 8, No. 1, Winter-Spring, 1999.  University of California.


[28]  1997 Census of Agriculture Table 51, pg. 144.


[29]  Report of the Commission on Agricultural Workers. Box 1, pg. 1.


[30]  The Census of Agriculture reports agricultural employment based on a sampling of farms and not an actual count of employed farm workers.


[31]  1992 Census of Agriculture, Table C, page C-10;  1997 Census of Agriculture, Table C, page C-10.  In 1997, the number of hired workers on all farms (excluding contract and custom harvest workers) who worked less than 150 days was 2.462 million.


[32]  This 72 percent estimate is derived by dividing labor expenditures (from the 1997 Census of Agriculture) by the hourly earnings of field and livestock workers from the USDA-NASS Farm Labor Survey to get the number of farm work hours attributed to crop farms (about 1.9 billion) and livestock farms (about 750 million).   Seventy-two percent of total hours were performed on crop farms.


[33]   The numbers presented in this section of the report could be applied to a base of 1.8 million, so a one- percent change in NAWS data refers to about 18,000 crop workers.  The terms “farm worker” and “crop worker” are used interchangeably in this section of the report.


[34]   “Newcomers” are individuals who, at the time of the interview, stated that they had entered the U.S. for the first time within the previous two years.  


[35]    See Rural Migration News, Vol. 6, No. 2, April 2000 at /rmn-archive/apr_2000-17.html


[36]  Farm workers lost ground even when compared to other private sector workers who share many demographic characteristics – for example, over the last decade, workers in eating/drinking establishments saw their nominal wages increase by 34 percent; workers in apparel/textile manufacturing saw their nominal wages increase by 34 percent; workers employed in laundry, cleaning and garment services saw their nominal wages increase by 28 percent; workers in meatpacking saw their nominal wages increase by 25 percent; and, workers in poultry processing plants saw their nominal wages increase by 36 percent.


[37]  These trends are confirmed by USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Survey (NASS) findings, as reported by the GAO [GAO/HEHS-98-20 H-2A Guestworker Program; December 1997; Appendix III, Tables III. 3 and III.4, pages 96 and 97].  Based on NASS data, in the seven year period from 1989 to 1996, the annual hourly wage rate for field workers rose by nearly 20 percent, from $5.12 to $6.34 – but in real terms the wage lost 2.7 percent of its value.  NASS also collected data on average annual hourly piece-rate wages for all hired farm workers (excluding contract labor) and found that between 1989 and 1995, the piece-rate wage increased by 5.7 percent, from $6.65 to $7.03 – but in real terms the average annual hourly piece-rate wage lost nearly 14 percent of its value.


[38]  In 1991 – 1992, 31 percent of all farm workers had incomes below the poverty level, compared to 60 percent in 1997 – 1998.  These data are not available for 1989 – 1990.


[39]  The 1989 poverty threshold for a family of four was $12,674 or $6.09 per hour for a full-time worker.  The threshold was $16,660 in 1998 or $8.01 per hour for a full-time worker. Poverty threshold data are from U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census: http://www.census.gov/hhes/poverty/threshold.html.  Farm workers are generally not full-time workers.


[40] In many States, only workers employed on the largest farms must be covered by UI, and unauthorized workers are not eligible for benefits, even if their employers pay UI taxes on their wages.  See Rural Migration News, Vol.6, No.2.