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The Fight for Fair Work Needs Full Funding for the Department of Labor

Woman outside picking a fruit from a tree

For most Americans, it’s normal to assume that your employer will treat you with dignity and respect, regardless of the industry. It’s not radical to expect safe and fair working conditions. 

But that’s not always the case if you are a foreign worker with a temporary work visa, like the H-2A or H-2B. In 2021, more than 250,000 workers were granted work permits through the H-2A visa program, which brings essential migrant workers into the US agriculture sector. Almost 90% were Mexican nationals. 

These visa holders accept seasonal employment in the US, hoping that they will receive fair wages and be treated with the same dignity expected by the national workforce. But labor violations, back wages, and poor working conditions are all too frequent according to media reports and Polaris’s own experience operating the National Human Trafficking Hotline and other survivor-centered programs. 

Polaris has been raising public awareness of exploitative conditions under temporary work visa programs. We have been calling out the lack of accountability for bad employers who find loopholes and take advantage of workers who desperately need jobs to provide for their families and communities. 

Now Polaris is calling for the financial resources to ensure the Department of Labor (DOL) can fulfill its mandate to protect workers and enforce labor law. The DOL has made it clear that they do not have the funding to monitor employers and ensure safe and humane conditions for workers, including those with H-2A visas. The numbers testify to the need: In 2018 there was only one labor inspector for every 175,000 workers. 

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The DOL is asking for $2.3 billion from the US administration for its worker protection agencies and efforts. In support of this request, Polaris and our partners Justice in Motion and the National Employment Law Project ask the Committee of Appropriations to approve the following items in the 2024 budget:

  • $340.953 million to restore and strengthen the Wage and Hour Division’s (WHD’s) enforcement capacity, an increase of $67.678 million and 389 full-time equivalent (FTE) personnel. 
  • $25.968 million to bolster WHD efforts in key areas like protecting the rights and wages of essential workers, ensuring prevailing wage protections, and combating child labor.
  • $2.5 million to help enforce protections of temporary foreign workers and expand outreach efforts alongside the rise in worker visa programs.
  • $199.641 million across general and trust funds to adequately resource the Office of the Solicitor to enforce labor and employment laws and keep pace with the DOL’s urgent enforcement agenda.

Without enough inspectors, outreach staff, and other resources at the DOL, we will continue to read about child labor in meat packing industries, back wages owed to workers, and other violations. Budget cuts will endanger workers, leaving them vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation. But we can prevent these situations by properly and fully funding the right offices to ensure foreign workers are treated with dignity, fairness, and respect while working in the US. You can help make this happen by contacting your Congress members today. 

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