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COVID-19 Exposes Flaws in the H-2A Visa System

The federal government has wisely recognized the importance of keeping farms and other agricultural producers up and running – and therefore keeping food on the nation’s tables – in this time of crisis. But a proposal being floated to help business owners by hurting farm workers is a recipe for disaster – and for labor trafficking.

Specifically, the proposal under consideration would slash the already fairly low pay of workers who come to the United States legally, on temporary work visas specific to the agriculture industry known as H-2As. 

Information gleaned from more than 10 years of Polaris operating the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline has shown that workers on H-2A visas are extremely vulnerable to trafficking. There are several reasons for this, the key among them is that many workers are charged exorbitant fees by recruiters for the opportunity to get one of these visas.

While such fees are illegal under the H-2A guidelines, the prohibition is rarely enforced. 

As a result of paying these fees, the workers come to the United States already deeply in debt – and hope to pay that debt off with the earnings from the job.

These debts are an essential method traffickers use to control victims. Traffickers can require workers to labor without breaks, in inhumane conditions, and to live in unsanitary or overcrowded housing. The workers have no choice but to stay and comply, because the consequences of not paying off the debt are worse.

Reducing wages for these workers will undoubtedly make that situation even worse. Mistreated workers will have even fewer chances available for them. This is particularly disturbing during a pandemic, where crowded housing conditions and lack of protective gear can lead to outbreaks of COVID-19. 

The Department of Homeland Security described agricultural workers as essential during the crisis. While we consider any effort to keep businesses afloat important, we encourage decision-makers to include protections to farmworkers to ensure they stay safe, healthy, and free of labor trafficking. The nation has never needed them more.  

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Need help? Polaris operates the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline.