DOL Data Shows Increase in Unskilled H-2A Farm Workers
The Department of Labor’s (DOL) Office of Foreign Labor Certification recently published data on the usage of the H-2A nonimmigrant visa for Fiscal Year 2022 (October 1 – present).
The H-2A program allows U.S. employers to hire foreign nationals to fill temporary agricultural occupations if these companies cannot find willing, able, qualified, and available Americans to work these jobs. This guestworker program has no cap, meaning agricultural employers can hire as many foreign nationals as possible.
The data shows that for the first two quarters of FY 2022 (October 2021 – March 2022), applications for H-2A workers increased by 17.5 percent compared to FY 2021. In addition, the DOL certified 193,273 positions for the H-2A program – a 16.5 percent increase compared to FY 2021 during the same two quarters.
Unsurprisingly, Big Agriculture groups attributed the surge in H-2A workers to a supposed lack of available or willing Americans to work these jobs. These claims are baseless. Data from the American Community Survey revealed the following on the top agricultural-related occupations:
- Ninety-three percent of farmers, ranchers, and other agricultural managers are native-born Americans.
- Eighty-seven percent of agricultural and food scientists are native-born.
- Eighty-six percent of agricultural and food science technicians are native-born.
- Eighty-four percent of agricultural inspectors are native-born.
- Forty-four percent of graders and sorters of agricultural products are native-born.
- And 58 percent of other agricultural workers are native-born.
Clearly, American citizens do work in these agricultural occupations. Additionally, businesses often take advantage of the H-2A program’s uncapped provision for guestworkers, allowing them to have an unlimited source of cheap, unskilled foreign workers, as these individuals are commonly paid less, removing any incentive to hire American citizens.
This practice drives down wages for U.S. workers and discourages them from applying for these positions in the first place. It’s difficult for Americans to compete in a labor market when a large pool of foreign laborers is willing to accept lower wages and work in unethically deplorable working conditions.
Furthermore, according to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), in Fiscal Year 2019, 38 percent of DOL investigations discovered at least one workplace violation on H-2A-sponsoring farms being scrutinized. EPI notes the lack of consistent labor enforcement leaves foreign workers open to mistreatment by their employment sponsor.
Moreover, there are scores of cases in which H-2A workers have been victims of wage theft, physical abuse, and human trafficking. In a letter to Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.), Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas readily acknowledged the shortcomings of the agricultural scheme.
The H-2A visa program needs urgent reform. Like other nonimmigrant programs, it puts the interests of the American worker last and puts guestworkers in undesirable situations. President Biden must reverse his stance on the H-2A visa if he is committed to providing U.S. workers a fair shot at the labor market.
At the very least, there should be better oversight of employers applying for H-2A workers, such as verifying whether resident workers are being actively recruited before resorting to foreign labor. Also, the DOL should expand worksite inspection efforts to ensure guestworkers are not being maltreated. Otherwise, more workers will fall victim to these unscrupulous practices.