On October 24, 2022, Immigration and Labor Coordinator Yahaira Cáceres submitted comments to the federal register on the USDA’s Farm Labor Stabilization and Protection Pilot Program on behalf of the National Young Farmers Coalition.
The National Young Farmers Coalition (Young Farmers) appreciates the opportunity to provide written comments on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Labor Stabilization and Protection Pilot Program. We look forward to seeing how this program improves labor protections for farmworkers. We encourage you to continue to actively seek input from impacted stakeholders as decisions are made about this new program. Below we have provided comments to the questions posed in the Federal Register.
About the National Young Farmers Coalition
The National Young Farmers Coalition is a national grassroots advocacy organization that represents, mobilizes, and engages young farmers and ranchers to shift power and change policy to equitably resource our new generation of working farmers. We help young farmers become leaders in their communities through local chapter organizing, ensuring they have a seat at the table in local, state, and national policy decisions. We envision a just future where farming is free of racial violence, accessible to communities, oriented towards environmental well-being, and concerned with health over profit. In short, we are young farmers fighting for a brighter future for U.S. agriculture.
As a farm organization, we believe conversations about the future of agriculture cannot occur without addressing immigration and labor issues. We are farmers in solidarity with farmworkers. In 2020, our members decisively voted for the coalition to engage in policy and advocacy to be an ally and advocate for immigrants’ and workers’ rights and better labor conditions in agriculture and the food system. Supporting the transition of immigrants, farmworkers, and food systems workers to farm ownership and other agricultural roles will make our agricultural system resilient and diversified. Our mission of building a brighter, more just future for agriculture is not possible unless we are also advocates for these important issues.
The following recommendations are based on conversations with our membership, guidance from our partners, and research provided by the Farm Bill Law Enterprise.
The following are questions for agricultural employers:
1) What barriers and challenges do agricultural employers currently face in accessing the H-2A visa program? What specific barriers and challenges do agricultural employers face in hiring workers from northern Central America?
The majority of our membership does not participate in the H-2A visa program. Our farmers do, however, support reform to the current program. Many organizations are advocating for the program’s expansion due to labor shortages. Farmers turning to the H-2A program to fill labor shortage gaps report losing prospective workers to industries that offer better pay and benefits; improvements in pay and worksite conditions could help reverse this trend. The H-2A program does present a costly long process that farmers often don’t meet due to bureaucratic red tape. In supporting farmers in creating more just working environments for farmworkers, we can decrease labor shortages while also supporting farmworkers.
2) Do agricultural employers have specific feedback on the housing components of the H-2A visa program? What challenges do you face related to housing?
One of the biggest challenges for farmers to attract domestic farmworkers is providing adequate housing. Many farmers request that the USDA make more housing investments so we can revitalize the workforce in rural America. Farmworkers will not want to be located in rural areas if adequate housing is unavailable. Access to rural housing is very limited and directly affects the attraction of farm labor, as well as farmworkers’ mental health and stability. Additionally, inspections of employer-provided housing should occur regularly. Farmers should be able to submit maintenance requests and be connected to funding and resources to meet the regulations that establish baseline housing standards. According to the Farm Bill Law Enterprise Farmworker Report, despite regulations establishing baseline standards for farmworker housing, research has uncovered that many facilities have structural damage and lack basic plumbing, sanitation, and/or kitchen facilities; a study of farm labor camps in North Carolina found an average of 11.4 housing violations per camp. Housing provided to H-2A workers also frequently fails to meet the minimum standards, with advocates citing dangerous conditions; inadequate sanitation, cooking and laundry facilities; and overcrowding. Poor conditions in farmworker housing have been found to exacerbate or correlate with other issues, such as increased pesticide exposure and contamination, elevated levels of anxiety and depression, and transmission of communicable diseases and viruses. Farmworkers need adequate housing and the means to report any housing violations anonymously and safely. Farmers should be supported through the process of providing and maintaining housing. To hold farmers accountable to those standards, routine inspections and follow-ups on any reporting of housing violations should occur.
3) What incentives are employers seeking from USDA to improve their ability to hire workers from northern Central American countries under the seasonal H-2A visa program?
The USDA can create programs to support and incentivize farmers who want to create better working conditions for their workers. An example is establishing a temporary, forgivable loan fund for low-income farmers transitioning to better employment practices. For this work, the sponsorship structure of the program should change for the H-2A program to become transferable. Workers should be able to leave their sponsor-employers to search for better working conditions elsewhere in cases where working conditions are abusive.
4) What enhanced worker protections and labor standards are employers willing to accept to receive USDA support to stabilize the workforce? What mechanisms would help achieve these enhanced protections and standards?
Our farmers supported the protections stipulated in Senate Bill 87, the Colorado farmworkers’ bill of rights. Our farmer members, all over the country, advocate for resources to be provided to farmworkers, such as healthcare. The labor standards that our farmers support are:
- Prohibiting an agricultural employer from retaliating against any person, including an agricultural employee who is asserting protected rights, and allowing an aggrieved person to assert a claim in district court or with the division of labor standards and statistics (division) in the department of labor and employment for alleged retaliation;
- Agriculture employees having the right to organize and join labor unions; engage in protected, concerted activity; and engage in collective bargaining;
- Removing the exemption of agricultural labor from federal, state, and local minimum wage laws;
- Requiring the director of the division to promulgate rules to establish the overtime pay of agricultural employees, to implement procedures concerning retaliation claims, to ensure access to key service providers, and for overwork protections for agricultural workers;
- Granting agricultural employees meal breaks and rest periods throughout each work period, consistent with protections for other employees;
- Providing agricultural employees with access and transportation to key service providers;
- Authorizing agricultural employees to have visitors at employer-provided housing without interference from other persons;
- Providing overwork and health protections to agricultural employees;
- Prohibiting the use of the short-handled hoe for agricultural labor except in specific circumstances;
- During a public health emergency, requiring an agricultural employer to provide extra protection and increased safety precautions for agricultural employees;
- Creating rights, remedies, and enforcement actions for aggrieved agricultural employees, whistleblowers, and key service providers; and
- Creating an agricultural work advisory committee to study and analyze agricultural wages and working conditions.
The USDA should help with the enforcement of these standards. To incentivize farmers to follow these standards, the USDA should limit loan access to producers who refuse to participate in a worker-driven social responsibility program, enter into a collective bargaining agreement with their workers, or cannot otherwise demonstrate the producer’s commitment to workers’ rights, verified by farmworkers employed by that producer.
The USDA should support farmers participating in the Worker-Driven Social Responsibility program (WSR) that the Coalition of Immokalee Workers developed. The WSR model leverages the purchasing power of major corporate buyers to eliminate forced farm labor and requires the implementation of humane working conditions on farms enrolled in CIW’s Fair Food Program (FFP).
The following are questions for farmworker advocacy organizations:
1) What barriers or challenges do farmworkers, specifically those in northern Central American countries, face in participating in the H-2A visa program?
The lack of accountability and reporting from employers participating in the H-2A visa program has led to exploitative working conditions for H-2A workers. Housing conditions for H-2A workers have been reported to be worse than those provided for domestic farm workers. The program has also been weaponized to threaten domestic workers’ bargaining power. Due to the dependence on housing, transportation, access to sustenance, and the lack of movement due to the visas being tied to the employer, H-2A workers are highly vulnerable to egregious labor abuses. Reports show that many H-2A workers have experienced wage theft, sexual harassment, assault, and forced labor under this program. The lack of resources for workers to report employer violations anonymously creates fear of retaliation from the employer.
2) What do you recommend to enhance farmworker protections, including during recruitment and employment? What methods do you recommend for enforcing and verifying those protections that will promote a safer, healthier work environment for U.S. workers and workers hired from northern Central American countries under the seasonal H-2A visa program?
The government should work with countries from the northern Central American region to create a seamless recruitment process through their governments. The Guatemalan embassy is working with the DOL to have their guest worker program work alongside the H-2A visa program. There should be strong protections against predatory and abusive recruitment practices and recruitment fees. The H-2A program should not come at a cost to the workers.
3) What suggestions do you have to help ensure compliance for any additional standards required by recipients of grants as part of this farm labor stabilization and protection pilot grant program?
The USDA should create a strategic plan and provide semi-annual reports concerning the activities of the Farmworker Coordinator position and the farm labor stabilization and protections pilot grant program. There should be transparency on how the money of the program is being used, what organizations the money is being provided to, and how that organization is using the money. The strategic plan should be made public and address identified gaps in services and outcomes for farmworkers, anticipated activities, processes for engaging farmworker communities, and contact information for feedback and inquiries. The participatory review process should be similar to the Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers Program (2501 Program).
4) What recommendations do you have to increase farmworker awareness of their resources and worker rights both for workers within the United States and for H-2A visa holders in their country of origin?
For resources to be more accessible to farmworkers, the resources cannot be provided only in English. The resources should be provided in multiple languages and should not contain jargon-filled English. By federal law, resources from federal institutions are supposed to be in plain language, and people have the right to those specific resources in their languages. USDA should begin translating any statements, existing resources, and documents into multiple languages. Moving forward, all updates and resources created should be translated. Translation of written documents is not enough, and farm workers who cannot access written documents/statements due to technology or literacy barriers should also have access to verbal translation. If the resource is just a copy-paste into Spanish or other languages, then cultural context is missed, and that resource isn’t truly a resource. Involving trusted farmworker community leaders in the creation/distribution of the resource can also widen its reach. The USDA must work with “boots on the ground” organizations that do grassroots work. USDA could engage in cooperation agreements similar to ARPTA cooperators to ensure that culturally competent, linguistically accessible worker education reaches farmworkers.
In the creation process of additional resources, the processes must be participatory. Additional listening sessions should occur, farmworkers should be able to participate in their language, and they should be translated and documented. Outreach should be prioritized to farmworker organizations to get the word out to farmworkers and advocates, encouraging them to participate. Instructions and questions from federal register comments should also be provided in multiple languages, and the federal register should also be able to receive comments from multiple languages. Farmworkers should be meaningfully engaged in and compensated during the planning, creation, and evaluation of these resources. USDA should consider creating a board of farmworkers to participate in the policy-setting process.
The expansion of the current role of the USDA Farmworker Coordinator could help retool the USDA to help serve farmworkers and make resources more accessible and known.
- “Agricultural Workers’ Rights.” Agricultural Workers’ Rights | Colorado General Assembly, 8 June 2021, https://leg.colorado.gov/bills/sb21-087.
- Scott, Emma, et al. FBLE’s Farmworkers Report. Farm Bill Law Enterprise, https://www.farmbilllaw.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/Farmworkers-Report.pdf.