Washington, D.C. – The United Farm Workers and the UFW Foundation welcome the Department of Labor’s proposed H2A rules published today and look forward to carefully reviewing and facilitating farm worker feedback during the rulemaking process. Stronger protections for H-2A workers are long overdue, and the proposed rule takes several steps towards improving labor standards for H-2A workers, including basic measures such as retaliation protections for workers, requiring seat belts on H-2A worker transportation, and allowing for greater transparency in the recruitment process.
The H-2A agricultural guest worker program has long been rife with abuse, exploitation and trafficking. The H-2A program leaves workers totally dependent on their employer for their housing, transportation, and visa. The H-2A visa is not an immigrant visa, meaning workers cannot switch employers and cannot obtain U.S. citizenship, regardless of how many years they come to the U.S. legally. H-2A workers’ very presence in the country depends on their employer’s whim, resulting in a fundamentally unbalanced power dynamic between worker and employer.
Last year, both the UFW and UFW Foundation led a coalition of labor, immigrant and human rights organizations in sending a letter to the Biden Administration asking them to investigate the H-2A program after a federal investigation uncovered how H-2A workers were subjected to human trafficking and modern day slavery in Georgia. Other recent abuses in the H-2A program include:
- In Washington, where male workers on H-2A visas were used to illegally displace a predominantly female local workforce, resulting in a gender discrimination lawsuit by the WA Attorney General’s office.
- In Utah, where the former President of the Utah Farm Bureau is now subject to a human trafficking investigation after physically assaulting H-2A workers on his farm.
- In New York, where H-2A workers from Mexico and Jamaica have been threatened with losing their work visas by employers amidst ongoing UFW unionization campaigns, growers are attempting to exclude H-2A workers from unionization rights.
- In Idaho, where recent reporting uncovered systemic abuse of sheepherders working under H-2A visas, as well as the complicity of state labor department officials in looking the other way.
- In California, where H-2A workers from Mexico had their visas recalled after speaking out about unsafe working conditions in what was ultimately found to be an illegal labor practice.
- In Florida, where an H-2A worker was the first farm worker in 2023 to be killed on the job by extreme heat while on his very first day on the job, resulting in an OSHA citation of the employer.
The UFW and UFW Foundation have long called for systemic reforms to the H-2A program. In reaction to the DOL’s announcement of proposed rules, UFW President Teresa Romero and UFW Foundation CEO Diana Tellefson Torres released the following statements:
“It’s about damn time,” said United Farm Workers President Teresa Romero. “The H-2A program has long facilitated the creation of a de-facto underclass of legally vulnerable workers kept in a permanent state of exclusion from U.S. citizenship and labor law. We are hopeful that these proposed rules indicate a real commitment by the Biden Administration to begin empowering farm workers on H-2A visas to stand up to employer retaliation, unsafe working conditions, and illegal recruitment practices. The UFW is committed to ensuring both domestic and H-2A workers, many of whom we are proud to represent as members of our union, have their voices heard in the rulemaking process going forward.”
“We are encouraged to see the DOL propose new H-2A program rules,” said UFW Foundation Chief Executive Officer Diana Tellefson Torres. “Time and time again, guestworkers in agriculture are put at risk by employers that abuse the system for their own financial gain. We have continuously called on DOL to use all its tools, including the rulemaking process, to protect H-2A guestworkers. It’s time DOL implement more robust safeguards for H-2A guestworkers and enforce those rules. We will be analyzing the proposed language and encouraging farm workers to lift up their voices during the comment period.”