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What Is The Farm Guest Worker Program And Why Is It Controversial In Wash. State?

Ashley Gross
Berry pickers showed up in a Skagit County court as they brought a lawsuit against Sakuma Brothers Farms. They said the farm was trying to exclude them from work and instead bring in foreign guest workers under the H-2A program.

People in Seattle are familiar with the H-1B visa program that brings high-tech employees from abroad, but another, more obscure foreign worker program has churned up a lot of controversy in the state recently.

It’s called the H-2A temporary agricultural worker program, and it’s administered by the Department of Labor. Under that system, farms apply to bring foreign workers here temporarily — and legally — if they can prove they’re facing a labor shortage.

For Steve Sakuma, board chairman of Sakuma Brothers Farms in Skagit County, the program sounded like a promising solution to fill a labor shortage he says began in 2012 and forced them to leave hundreds of thousands of pounds of berries unpicked.

A few weeks ago, Sakuma led a few reporters on a tour of his family’s berry farm in Burlington, north of Seattle. Rows and rows of berry plants stretch out in the distance. The farm began as a small operation in 1935 when Sakuma’s father moved there from Bainbridge Island.

The family managed to hold onto their land through the help of a family friend, even though many of the Sakumas were sent to Japanese internment camps during World War II. After they returned, they gradually were able to buy more acreage.

“Over time, it just grew and grew, and grew as our family grew,” Sakuma said.

Worker Strikes 

Like all farmers, the Sakumas face uncertainties, such as the weather, the price they can get for their produce and their ability to find the right number of workers.

But last year, the harvest was tumultuous because many of their workers formed a workers’ association, Familias Unidas por la Justicia, and walked out on repeated strikes. TV crews descended as hundreds of berry pickers, mostly indigenous Mexican workers from Oaxaca, refused to work, protesting their pay and the firing of a couple of employees who had spoken out.

Credit Brett Davis / Washington Farm Bureau
Washington Farm Bureau
Steve Sakuma

Around the same time, the Sakumas brought in about 70 Mexican guest workers under the H-2A program. Steve Sakuma says the family decided to turn to guest workers after not being able to find enough workers in 2012.

“That caused us to look at the H-2A program, because it was the only tool out there that provides us the opportunity to have some level of control of inputs to have the right labor force required when we needed it,” Sakuma said.

Then this year, the farm applied for many more guest workers. The farm also told hundreds of strikers from last year that they wouldn’t be hired this year because they had unexcused absences and hadn’t completed the contract.

Workers ' Lawsuit

Credit David Cravioto
Martin Barrera is a Sakuma worker who received a letter this year telling him he was disqualified from coming back to work because of unexcused absences last year, when he walked out on strike.

The workers’ association sued the farm and a Skagit County judge issued a temporary restraining order in their favor, telling Sakuma Brothers that they had to allow workers who had gone on strike last year to apply to work this year.

So the farm has now reversed course. The farm says it is not going to hire H-2A workers this year and will just hire locally.

“We recognize that it is a risk to go in this direction given that the H-2A program provided us a safety net for securing a labor force, but we are hopeful that working with local community farm worker advocates we will be able to hire the work force we need,” Sakuma said in a press release.

Labor Shortage?

Credit KPLU
Based on data provided by the Department of Labor Office of Foreign Labor Certification.

The Sakumas opted out, but use of the H-2A program has surged across the state. The number of H-2A positions certified in Washington has grown from 1,984 in 2009 to 6,251 last year. Washington ranked fifth in the country last year for the number of H-2A positions certified, even ahead of California.

Dan Fazio is with Washington Farm Labor Association, a nonprofit group that manages H-2A applications for many farms in the state. He says what’s driving the growth is that farmers can’t find sufficient workers.

“We last had serious labor shortages in 2006, and I’m predicting we’re going to have labor shortages again this year,” Fazio said.

Credit KPLU
Based on data provided by the Department of Labor Office of Foreign Labor Certification.

He says there are many reasons farms have had a tough time finding people lately, including the tightening of the U.S.–Mexico border.

“The border’s closing is one of them. There are less workers. The workers are aging and no longer willing to do that,” Fazio said. “And, of course, the primary driver is that people don’t want to do seasonal work.”

But not everyone is convinced there’s a labor shortage. Among them is Nina Martinez of the worker advocacy group Latino Civic Alliance.

“I’m hearing that the growers say they can’t recruit, and then we hear from the farmworkers directly from themselves that it’s not true, that they’re showing up to these farms and wanting to apply and work,” Martinez said.

Fazio points to state surveys that show farmers haven’t been able to find all the workers they need. Martinez says if there is so much demand, why haven’t wages risen?

H-2A Program Design

The reason why this is important is that farmworkers who are already here have little chance of agitating for better conditions if they can be easily replaced.

The guest worker program is designed with built-in disincentives in order to prevent farmers from using it as a substitute labor pool.

The H-2A program has a lot of red tape and can be expensive, because farmers have to pay to transport workers here and back and must pay a higher minimum wage. In Washington this year, the minimum wage under the H-2A program is $11.87 per hour, compared with the state's $9.32 minimum wage. Farmers also have to apply that higher minimum wage to all domestic employees if they employ H-2A workers.

Nevertheless, historian Cindy Hahamovitch of the College of William and Mary says farmers have long advocated for guest worker programs.

“You can request a certain number of workers. They’re supposed to arrive when you need them. They go away when you don’t want them anymore,” Hahamovitch said. “It makes perfect sense that this would be a desirable program, and if you’re faced with a farm labor union that’s stirring things up, then there’s even more incentive.”

Past Legal Troubles

Here in Washington in recent years, some domestic fruit pickers have been fighting in court, saying they were denied work because farms hired H-2A workers instead, even though they’re supposed to hire domestic workers first.

Apple pickers in Yakima Valley successfully sued, saying they lost out on work because two farms hired H-2A workers from Thailand. Their attorney, Joe Morrison with Columbia Legal Services, says what’s more, Global Horizons, the company that brought the Thai workers here, illegally charged them $10,000 to $12,000 apiece to get those jobs.

“It’s really bringing in indentured servants to this country, and that’s one of the most extreme cases we had ever seen,” Morrison said. “So that’s the height of abuse.”

Dan Fazio of the Washington Farm Labor Association defends the H-2A program, saying it’s good for farmers and workers. Farmers get a legal, stable source of labor, and workers can make a lot more money than they do at home.

The H-2A issue is likely to come up again, if and when Congress moves ahead with immigration reform. Farmers want it to be streamlined and easier to use, and worker advocates want it more closely monitored. 

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.