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A human-trafficking case exposed farmworker abuses. The government is promising change

Farmworkers near Fresno, Calif., pick paper trays of dried raisins off the ground and heap them onto a trailer in the final step of raisin harvest on Sept. 24, 2013.
Gosia Wozniacka
/
AP
Farmworkers near Fresno, Calif., pick paper trays of dried raisins off the ground and heap them onto a trailer in the final step of raisin harvest on Sept. 24, 2013.

Federal reforms for farmworkers are in the works following a blockbuster human trafficking case out of Georgia late last year. That case highlighted loopholes for abuse in the federal visa program that provides 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 is preparing to take the first step toward creating a rule reforming the H-2A and H-2B nonimmigrant worker visas.

The letter comes alongside others sent to Ossoff throughout May from the Labor and State Departments in response to his questions about steps the federal government is taking to protect farm and food system workers.

Ossoff wrote to the agencies in March following the indictment of two dozen defendants in a multi-year human trafficking case in Georgia that found the defendants allegedly defrauded the government of over 70,000 H-2A visas — forcing hundreds of workers to illegally work on Georgia onion farms. The case reignited advocates' push for increased labor protections among America's essential farmworkers.

In the Georgia case, dubbed Operation Blooming Onion, the working conditions were described as "modern day slavery" as workers faced 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 pay illegal fees, held their identification documents hostage, required physically demanding work for little or no pay and housed workers "in crowded, unsanitary, and degrading living conditions." According to the indictment, workers were threatened with deportation and violence while the defendants profited $200 million.

"The commitment that I have received to engage in new rulemaking suggests that in response to my inquiry they are planning to undertake reforms to protect the human rights of migrant farmworkers in the United States," Ossoff told NPR in an interview, adding he still wants to see what specific rulemaking the agency plans to make.

There's been a growing dependence on foreign labor

Currently, farmers and ranchers are able to resource the H-2A visa program if they need workers to perform seasonal or temporary agricultural labor so long as they can prove that they were not able to hire a domestic worker, among other requirements. While H-2B visas are considered "nonagricultural," nurseries, meatpacking and seafood processing plants use them across the country.

The demand for agricultural workforce visas has been steadily on the rise as producers face continued labor shortages, even before the pandemic. Most recently, the Labor Department noted the number of H-2A visas has more than tripled since 2012.

Conditions in Georgia were dubbed as 'modern day slavery'

Employees with these kinds of agriculture labor visas make up a small portion of the overall agriculture labor force, nearly half which is estimated to be made up of undocumented workers, according to the Labor Department. But abuses still occur even through the legal federal program aimed at providing labor.

Over 70 percent of DOL investigations find workplace violations, with 30 percent of investigations finding employers have committed five or more violations, according to a report from the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, which analyzed DOL data.

Though the case in Georgia is among the most extreme, since the start of the Biden administration, the DOL's Wage and Hour Division, one of the branches that investigates workplace abuses, has concluded 573 H-2A investigations, resulting in over $9 million in back wages for more than 10,000 workers. Additionally, the agency has assessed over $8.8 million in civil money 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 rulemaking process, which could still take years, would address some of the biggest issues brought to light in Operation Blooming Onion, such as workers being overcharged and issued illegal fees for visas and facing salary shortages.

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

DHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Ximena Bustillo
Ximena Bustillo is a multi-platform reporter at NPR covering politics out of the White House and Congress on air and in print.