Updated: Aug 25, 2021
What the US immigration system, the development of foreign worker visa programs, and years of institutionalized racism create.
I work as a Farmworker Organizer with CATA, and many days I visit farmworkers who are in the US on the H-2A foreign worker visa. In short, the H-2A program allows farmers (or labor contractors) to bring workers from abroad for a period of time when a farmer can prove they cannot find domestic workers for these jobs. Each state has what's called the Adverse Wage Rate (AWR), which is what employers must pay all H-2A workers. In New Jersey, the AWR is $14.05 an hour.
But in my visits to H-2A workers in Atlantic County this season, seldom are workers actually paid that rate. Often, in Hammonton, they are paid a piece rate for blueberries or blackberries and often work 10-14 hour days and/or 7 days a week.
So many workers I have met knowingly avoid the question, "how much are you paid?" Others are surprised to find their contracts say they are working in different states (with lower AWRs). But when it comes to filing a complaint, seldom do these friends and comrades feel it is worth it to act. The labor contractors capitalize on the fact that these workers' legal status is tied to their employment, and if they get fired, they must immediately leave the country, and that these workers want to work for US wages, even if they are being paid $3 less an hour than they legally should.
So, farmworkers settle for theft of their wages and other breaches of their contract time and time again because they want to work, and they want to be hired back the next year. As modern agriculture in the Americas was built on chattel slavery of African people, it continues to capitalize on the disenfranchisement of new groups of laborers. That is part of this perfect storm.
The Farm Workforce Modernization Act is legislation currently in Congress that actually proposes many more damaging changes to the H-2A program. You can read more about CATA's opposition to this bill HERE and send a message to your Senators HERE.
And when the storm feels the most daunting, I know we find strength in the poems, music, writing, and art from all the artists and organizers that have come before us, those who have helped shape our present and futures, as we do now for the next generations. Poems like the following remind me there is so much to learn from the past to shape more equitable futures, but the solutions or ways forward will never be the same as they once were. We must keep imagining and demanding the alternatives that meet our ever-changing world.
The following poem is from the novel Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler.
Let the past
Leaders and Thinkers.
Let them inspire you,
Give you strength.
God is Change.
Past is past.
Know the past.
Let it touch you