What rights do seasonal farm workers have if an employer mistreats them?

In my column This week's Consulta Migratoria® explains the rights that seasonal agricultural workers have if an employer mistreats them.

This is the column:

If there is one thing that makes my blood boil, it is when unscrupulous people take advantage of immigrants - and unfortunately, there are many such people. From individuals like notarios and immigration consultants who deceive people seeking immigration benefits with false promises or outright fraud, to employers who mistreat, abuse or fail to pay immigrants after working - in many cases - under deplorable conditions.

Among those exposed to this type of abuse are farm workers who come to the United States under the H-2A visa program, which allows agricultural producers to bring in temporary employees to work in fields and on farms.

Periodically we learn of terrible cases of abuse. U.S. Department of Labor investigators recently uncovered one such case in El Mirage, Arizona, where G Farms had approximately 70 farm workers on H-2A visas forced to live in inhumane conditions.

What makes the situation even worse and more embarrassing is that the owner and supervisor of the farm are Latino. Their names are Santiago Gonzalez and Arturo Valdez Castro, respectively.

Immigration law stipulates that in order to bring in foreign workers under the H-2A program, they must be provided with free housing.

But in violation of regulations, Gonzalez and his administrators set up a makeshift camp of unsanitary buses and trailers with no windows or proper ventilation, where farm workers slept huddled together with little space between them. And a trailer that served as a portable toilet had no drainage system and usually had stagnant water. An electrical cord to light the toilet exposed workers to electrocution.

G-Farms bus
One of the buses where G Farms housed its farm workers.
(Photo: U.S. Department of Labor)

Investigators also found that farmworkers were working overtime, but were not being paid their full wages.

The Secretary of Labor, Alexander Acosta, announced this month that more aggressive measures will be taken to prevent this type of abuse.

In the case of G Farms, a judge authorized a preliminary injunction against the farm, its owner Santiago Gonzalez, his supervisor Arturo Valdez Castro, and LeFelco and Raul Leon (G Farms agents who prepared the H-2A applications and recruited the foreign workers) that prohibits the use of the illegal housing where the farmworkers were held and forces them to house them in an apartment complex for the remainder of the 2017 season.

unsanitary housing at G Farms
Investigators found unsanitary and hazardous conditions in precarious farmworker camps at G Farms (Photo: U.S. Department of Labor).

Often, farmworkers do not complain because they need the work, they are threatened, or because they do not know they have rights.

Rights of temporary agricultural workers with H-2A visas

  1. Have a written description of the working conditions, including details on salary, housing and duration of employment before starting work.
  1. Receive a minimum wage stipulated by the government.
  1. Access to free clean and safe housing provided by the employer.
  1. Receive compensation in the event of a work-related accident or illness.
  1. Return to your home country for any reason before your employment contract expires.
  1. Employers, recruiters or representatives of the company no may withhold workers' passports.
  1. Be able to travel temporarily to visit family members and return to the U.S. if your H-2A visa is valid.
  1. They do not have to pay U.S. Social Security or Medicare taxes.
  1. The employer must reimburse you for your transportation expenses from your country to your place of work when you complete half of the contract period. You must also pay the costs of returning to your country at the end of your contract.
  1. If you are a victim of mistreatment, fraud or labor exploitation, you can file a complaint and receive assistance from the U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Section by calling 1-866-487-9243.