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Farmworkers take a quick break in a field in southeastern Iowa. While this summer has not been especially hot in Iowa, the crew leader (standing) said, he's noticed over the years summers have gotten hotter. Photo taken on Wednesday, July 20, 2023. photo by Sky Chadde, Investigate Midwest

US labor department proposes changes to H-2A program aimed at improving worker protections

The new proposal would give temporary visa workers more access to unions and require employers to disclose their recruiters.

Farmworkers take a quick break in a field in southeastern Iowa. While this summer has not been especially hot in Iowa, the crew leader (standing) said, he’s noticed over the years summers have gotten hotter. Photo taken on Wednesday, July 20, 2023. photo by Sky Chadde, Investigate Midwest

by Sky Chadde, Investigate Midwest

September 12, 2023

The U.S. Department of Labor announced Tuesday a new proposal it said would strengthen protections for H-2A farmworkers, who come to the U.S. on temporary labor visas.

The federal government has recognized for decades that farmworkers often face abuses on the job, including poor housing and wage theft. H-2A workers’ time in the country is tied to their employer, which advocates and experts have said lead workers to not complain about abuses. 

Julie Su

The labor department said the new proposed rule would help H-2A workers better protect themselves from retaliation. 

The labor department’s proposal includes:

  • Giving H-2A workers more access to labor unions. Some H-2A workers already are members of unions, such as FLOC in North Carolina. Under the proposal, H-2A workers would be able to invite members of labor unions to their housing, which is owned by their employers. It would also allow workers to have a labor representative at any disciplinary meeting.
  • Narrowing when workers could be fired “for cause.” A common fear of farmworkers is getting blacklisted, which means they often put up with abusive working conditions so they can continue working in the U.S., where they can make more money than back home. When H-2A workers are fired “for cause,” employers do not need to pay for their transportation back to their home countries, which can strand workers with little resources. The proposal would change “for cause” termination to just include 1) if a worker fails to meet agreed-upon productivity standards or 2) if a worker doesn’t comply with employer policies multiple times.
  • Requiring employers to disclose their recruiters. U.S. farms and labor contractors often use recruiters in foreign countries to find H-2A labor, but it’s difficult to know which employer uses which recruiter. The rule would require employers to disclose the identity and location of anyone recruiting for them. This part of the proposal comes after government reports found incidents of human trafficking in the H-2A program.
  • Requiring seat belts in the vehicles that transport workers to and from work sites. Employers often use old school buses, which have no seat belts, to take workers from their housing to the work site. According to the labor department, vehicle crashes are one of the leading causes of death for farmworkers.

Once published in the federal register, there will be a 60-day public comment period.

“Farm workers are vital to our farmers, our food supply and our communities,” Acting DOL Secretary Julie Su said in a statement. “This proposed rule would strengthen protections for H-2A farm workers who are particularly vulnerable to labor abuses, empower them to advocate for fair treatment and ensure that their employment does not depress labor standards and undercut domestic farm workers. The administration is committed to protecting all workers, and this proposal would significantly advance that effort.”

RELATED: SEE OUR INVESTIGATION ABOUT FARMWORKER HOUSING

Investigate Midwest is an independent, nonprofit newsroom. Our mission is to serve the public interest by exposing dangerous and costly practices of influential agricultural corporations and institutions through in-depth and data-driven investigative journalism. Visit us online at www.investigatemidwest.org

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