Nature

DHS tells Sen. Jon Ossoff it will reform the agricultural visa program. : NPR


Farm workers near Fresno, California pick up paper trays of raisins from the ground and pile them onto a trailer during the final stage of the raisin harvest on September 24, 2013.

Gosia Wozniacka/AP


hide caption

toggle caption

Gosia Wozniacka/AP

DHS tells Sen. Jon Ossoff it will reform the agricultural visa program. : NPR

Farm workers near Fresno, California pick up paper trays of raisins from the ground and pile them onto a trailer during the final stage of the raisin harvest on September 24, 2013.

Gosia Wozniacka/AP

Federal reforms for farm workers are underway following a human trafficking case in Georgia late last year. This case exposed loopholes for abuse in the federal visa program that supplies workers to farms and meat processing plants.

In a letter sent to Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., earlier this month, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said the department was preparing to take the first step toward creating a rule reforming the H-2A and H-2B nonimmigrant worker visas. .

The letter accompanies others sent to Ossoff throughout May by the Labor and State Departments in response to his questions about the federal government’s actions to protect agriculture and food system workers. .

Ossoff wrote to agencies in March following the indictment of two dozen defendants in a years-long human trafficking case in Georgia that found the defendants allegedly defrauded the government of more than 70,000 H visas. -2A – forcing hundreds of workers to work illegally on the Georgia onion. farms. The case has reignited pressure from advocates for increased labor protections among America’s essential farm workers.

In the Georgia case, dubbed Operation Blooming Onion, working conditions have been described as “modern-day slavery” as workers were subjected to wage theft and physical abuse and were illegally transported; two died due to heat exposure. According to an indictment, 24 farm labor contractors and recruiters allegedly demanded workers to pay illegal fees, held their identity documents hostage, demanded physically demanding work for little or no wages and housed workers “in overcrowded, unsanitary and degrading living conditions”. According to the indictment, the workers were threatened with deportation and violence while the defendants benefited from $200 million.

“The pledge I received to commit to new rules suggests that in response to my request, they are considering undertaking reforms to protect the human rights of migrant farm workers in the United States,” said Ossoff to NPR in an interview, adding that he still wanted to see what specific regulations the agency plans to craft.

There has been a growing reliance on foreign labor

Currently, farmers and ranchers are able to fund the H-2A visa program if they need workers to do seasonal or temporary farm work as long as they can prove they weren’t able to. to hire a domestic worker, among other requirements. While H-2B visas are considered “non-agricultural,” nurseries, meat and seafood packing plants use them nationwide.

Demand for agricultural labor visas has steadily increased as producers face persistent labor shortages even before the pandemic. More recently, the Labor Department noted that the number of H-2A visas has more than tripled since 2012.

Conditions in Georgia have been called ‘modern day slavery’

Employees with these types of agricultural work visas represent a small portion of the overall agricultural workforce, nearly half of which are believed to be undocumented workers, according to the Labor Department. But abuses still occur even through the federal statutory labor supply program.

More than 70% of DOL investigations reveal workplace violations, with 30% of investigations finding employers committed five or more violations, according to a report by the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, which analyzed the data of the DOL.

Although the Georgia case is among the most extreme since the start of the Biden administration, the Wage and Hour Division of the DOL, one of the branches that investigates workplace abuse, concluded 573 H-2A investigations, resulting in over $9 million in return. the salaries of more than 10,000 workers. Additionally, the agency assessed more than $8.8 million in civil penalties for H-2A violations, according to the DOL letter written to Ossoff by WHD Acting Administrator Jessica Looman.

According to Mayorkas in the letter, the proposed rule-making process, which could still take years, would address some of the biggest issues highlighted in Operation Blooming Onion, such as workers being overcharged and being issued illegal fees for visas and facing salary shortages.

Additionally, Mayorkas said the department is looking at ways to improve oversight of the H-2A program and improve worker participation in investigations. The move is also in line with President Joe Biden’s campaign promises to strengthen protections for farmworkers, while Congress moves forward on immigration reform.

DHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment.


npr

Not all news on the site expresses the point of view of the site, but we transmit this news automatically and translate it through programmatic technology on the site and not from a human editor.
Back to top button