Sunday, July 15 , 2018, 7:48 pm | Fair 71º

 
 
 
 

Joe Guzzardi: Federal Government Sanctions Slave Labor, 21st-Century Style

“With President Trump, you never know.”

Those were the exact words a Senate legislative aide said to me when we were talking about President Donald Trump’s immigration views. The specific topic at the time was deferred action for childhood arrivals, DACA, which candidate Trump had vowed to end on “Day One” of his presidency, but didn’t.

In part because of Trump’s DACA dithering, the program and its future have since devolved into a political and legal quagmire.

Trump’s most recent fumbling and bumbling came during a Michigan rally when he said, to his base’s horror but to the powerful ag lobby’s delight, that “we have to have your workers come in,” a reference to issuing H-2A agriculture visas, a program that its critics say is systematically abused.

As Trump spoke, the Washington, D.C.-based National Council for Agricultural Employers; WAFLA, formerly the Washington (State) Farm Labor Association; the Washington (State) Growers League; and the Fresno County Farm Bureau could barely contain their collective joy. In fiscal year 2017, the Labor Department approved 200,049 H-2A visas for foreign-born agricultural guest workers, up 20.7 percent from 165,741 in FY 2016.

Just days before Trump’s speech, the Labor Department settled with G Farms, a Maricopa County, Ariz., agribusiness, on the grounds that it had subjected its grossly underpaid workers to “simply inhumane” conditions. G Farms had housed 69 guest workers in overcrowded, unsanitary semi-truck trailers and school buses, where they were exposed to Arizona’s summer heat without proper ventilation, and with dangling gas lines fed through bus windows.

The no-cap H-2A visa should be a national embarrassment because it enables ag employers to import vulnerable, easily exploitable individuals. The farm industry takes advantage of the susceptible while neglecting its own responsibility to enter the 21st century through mechanization.

Sharing in the blame is the federal government which, through the H-2A, sanctions modern day cheap, pliant slave labor. In 2014, Indiana University published a study, which found that, because employers control their visas, legal temporary guest workers are guaranteed to be underpaid and can’t advance in the labor market.

Growers contend that without easy access to cheap labor, “crops will rot in the field.” Crops that don’t rot, ag representatives claim, will soar to unaffordable retail prices, the mythical $20 avocado.

A wealth of nonpartisan academic research undermines the advocacy groups’ allegations. In its 2016 overview of the effect of farm labor costs on consumer prices, National Geographic reported that if workers’ wages increased by 47 percent, grocery bills would go up just $21.15 a year, or $1.76 a month.

Those findings are consistent with other academics’ conclusions, including those from UC Davis, Iowa State University and the Economic Policy Institute.

The H-2A visa and the ample supply of cheap labor it makes readily available have slowed mechanization’s progress and eliminated growers’ incentive to pay wages high enough to attract American workers.

Historically, the solution to labor shortages, assuming employers can document their existence, is to pay more, not to hire illegal immigrants, a crime, or lobby for more employment-based visas.

Case in point: In 2017, Christopher Ranch, which grows garlic on 5,000 acres in Gilroy, announced that it would hike pay for its farmworkers to $13 an hour that year from $11, or 18 percent, and then to $15 in 2018. The result: the ranch went from having a worker shortage to having a 150-person employment waiting list.

Created in 1952 as part of the Immigration and Nationality Act, the H-2A requires employers to seek Americans first, a condition that they’ve ignored too long, in large part because of the federal government’s willful blindness toward its abuses.

— Joe Guzzardi is an analyst and researcher with Progressives for Immigration Reform who now lives in Pittsburgh. He can be reached at [email protected], or follow him on Twitter: @joeguzzardi19. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

Support Noozhawk Today

You are an important ally in our mission to deliver clear, objective, high-quality professional news reporting for Santa Barbara, Goleta and the rest of Santa Barbara County. Join the Hawks Club today to help keep Noozhawk soaring.

We offer four membership levels: $5 a month, $10 a month, $25 a month or $1 a week. Payments can be made through Stripe below, or click here for information on recurring credit-card payments and a mailing address for checks.

Thank you for your vital support.

Become a Noozhawk Supporter

First name
Last name
Enter your email
Select your membership level
×

Payment Information

You are purchasing:

Payment Method

Pay by Credit Card:

Mastercard, Visa, American Express, Discover
One click only, please!

Pay with Apple Pay or Google Pay:

Noozhawk partners with Stripe to provide secure invoicing and payments processing.

  • Ask
  • Vote
  • Investigate
  • Answer

Noozhawk Asks: What’s Your Question?

Welcome to Noozhawk Asks, a new feature in which you ask the questions, you help decide what Noozhawk investigates, and you work with us to find the answers.

Here’s how it works: You share your questions with us in the nearby box. In some cases, we may work with you to find the answers. In others, we may ask you to vote on your top choices to help us narrow the scope. And we’ll be regularly asking you for your feedback on a specific issue or topic.

We also expect to work together with the reader who asked the winning questions to find the answer together. Noozhawk’s objective is to come at questions from a place of curiosity and openness, and we believe a transparent collaboration is the key to achieve it.

The results of our investigation will be published here in this Noozhawk Asks section. Once or twice a month, we plan to do a review of what was asked and answered.

Thanks for asking!

Click Here to Get Started >

Reader Comments

Noozhawk is no longer accepting reader comments on our articles. Click here for the announcement. Readers are instead invited to submit letters to the editor by emailing them to [email protected]. Please provide your full name and community, as well as contact information for verification purposes only.

Daily Noozhawk

Subscribe to Noozhawk's A.M. Report, our free e-Bulletin sent out every day at 4:15 a.m. with Noozhawk's top stories, hand-picked by the editors.

Sign Up Now >