The government’s decision to suspend the important research necessary to determine fair wages for farmworkers will likely make it even easier for labor trafficking to thrive.
The Agricultural Labor Survey was designed to generate the Adverse Effect Wage Rates – the figure the U.S. Department of Agriculture uses to determine acceptable hourly wages for the some 200,000 essential workers who come to this country legally on H-2A temporary work visas to take jobs that businesses say they otherwise can’t fill. This is an important tool to ensure those workers are not taken advantage of.
“The COVID-19 pandemic should not be used as an excuse to harm workers, especially those who are already vulnerable to human trafficking and labor exploitation. During this pandemic, the U.S. government has already taken measures to ease the immigration regulations for bringing migrant workers to fulfill the need for labor in the agricultural industry. It is outrageous that these regulations protect the profits of the business owners but cannot safeguard workers from human trafficking and labor abuses,” said Andrea Rojas, Director of Strategic Initiatives – Labor Trafficking at Polaris. She added, “The U.S. should not use the wages of foreign migrant workers to offset income loss of large agro-businesses during the pandemic. H-2A visa holders working in agriculture are among the most vulnerable in contracting the virus, and the government should put measures in place to protect them, not put their lives in further jeopardy and turn a blind eye to labor abuses.”
Without the Agricultural Labor Survey, agribusinesses could dramatically lower the amount they pay workers and do so legally. Debt bondage – a form of human trafficking – is already a substantial problem in the H-2A program. The National Human Trafficking Hotline has documented numerous instances where workers were forced to work in inhumane or dangerous conditions because they needed the money to pay back illegal fees they were forced to give to recruiters in order to get the job in the first place.
The Adverse Effect Wage Rates set the floor for how much they could be paid and gave them an avenue to seek redress if wages sunk below that floor. Without it, farms could pay far less – legally – and workers would have no real way to complain and a far harder time getting out of the debt bondage situation.