Understanding H-2A Worker Risks: New Research and Resources

July 3, 2020 11:10 am, Published by , Leave your thoughts

The third webinar in the Stronger Together US’ webinar series – “Understanding H-2A Worker Risks: New Research and Resources” – focused on the lives and working conditions of migrant farmworkers who feed the U.S. by harvesting our produce.

In this webinar, Stronger Together US and guest panelists sought to remove barriers to information between Mexico and the U.S. in order to take a more holistic view of workers’ experiences across both sides of the border. Much of the produce grown in Mexico is exported to the U.S., and workers from Mexico cross the border to work in U.S. fields under the H-2A guest worker program. By considering the reality of migrant workers’ experiences in both Mexico and the U.S., the industry will be better equipped to build a better labor and supply system.

Our first panelist, General Counsel Mary Bauer with Centro de los Derechos del Migrante (CDM), presented information from CDM’s latest 2020 report Ripe for Reform: Abuse of Agricultural Workers in the H-2A Visa Program based on in-depth interviews with 100 workers across 15 states in Mexico who have come to the U.S. on H-2A visas in the last four years. Vulnerabilities were detected at every stage of the recruitment and employment cycle which Bauer described as “deeply troubling even in ordinary times.” Every single H-2A worker interviewed experienced at least one serious legal violation and 94% experienced three or more serious legal violations. (See graph 1.)

It was noted in the survey that many workers felt that they had a good work experience overall and deeply valued the opportunity to come to the U.S. However, Bauer stressed in her remarks that all workers were asked to be interviewed anonymously for fear of retaliation and losing the opportunity to return. “Our legal system is not set up for these workers to access justice,” Bauer explained. “Workers who do bring litigation or file complaints with the Department of Labor have enormous barriers to overcome just in accessing legal services.”

Our second panelist, Andrea Rojas, Director of Strategic Initiatives on Labor Trafficking for Polaris, shared how the organization is working to reshape the system that makes sex and labor trafficking possible and profitable in the U.S. by understanding and analyzing crime data and trends. Polaris has run The National Human Trafficking Hotline for 13 years and has collected information from over 60,000 cases, making it the largest human trafficking dataset in the U.S. While 60,000 is an impressive number, it is only a fraction of the reality, representing only those who found the hotline and had the resources and sufficient trust to call it.

Analysis of the labor cases reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline shows that Mexico is one of the primary source countries for such victims; therefore, Polaris has launched several long-term initiatives in Mexico to coordinate solutions with partners there and provide a fuller transnational perspective of human trafficking. One such initiative is the Bidirectional Communication Pilot Project in the Agricultural Sector of San Luis Potosí, Mexico, which found similar patterns of exploitation and trafficking in Mexican agricultural work as those seen in U.S. agricultural work: debt, retention of payment, no contacts, restrictions of movement, threats and retaliation and lack of health and safety provisions were present. The recruitment stage was noted as a critical precursor to a trafficking situation when fees and fraud are involved.

Rojas observed that since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Hotline has been receiving more calls from workers reporting health and safety and shelter concerns. This reflects not only new risks for workers, but rather an increase in existing risks and a general lack of information due to the fact that Mexican consulates and U.S. government regulatory agencies are operating at reduced capacity. Where there are gaps in regulation and enforcement is where employers can play an important role in helping overcome barriers to identifying and holding unscrupulous actors accountable.  “Good labor actors can help create safe spaces for their workers where they know their rights and have access to safe, anonymous reporting mechanisms on the worksite in addition to knowing about other resources, like the National Human Trafficking Hotline,” said Rojas. “Workers are only going to be empowered to speak out about abuses if they don’t fear retaliation.”

Our third panelist, Quinn Sandor Kepes, Senior Program Director with Verité shared data explaining how and why Covid-19 is increasing workers’ vulnerability to becoming victims of human trafficking. Using International Labour Organization (ILO) indicators, Verité has found that, compared to workers in other countries, U.S. agricultural workers and especially H-2A workers are more vulnerable to labor trafficking than agricultural workers in many other countries. While this is true in normal times, the presence of Covid-19 is increasing the weight of these risks for a variety of reasons: more economic desperation in sending countries; migrant workers feeling unable to refuse to work in a hazardous environment, and restrictions on movement nationally and internationally, among other factors.

Kepes shared practical steps that companies can take to mitigate risks, including:

  • Creating and communicating strong policies across the supply chain
  • Implementing a reliable two-way grievance system for workers that collects their information, provides resources and support, and redresses their grievances. Two-way communication helps ensure that voices and concerns are heard.
  • Conducting in-depth third-party assessments and interviews of suppliers, labor brokers and workers
  • Building capacity of in-house staff, suppliers, labor brokers, monitors and workers
  • Strengthening internal and supplier management systems
  • Advocating for improved government policy and enforcement of labor law

To elaborate on the last point, Kepes explained, “There’s this assumption in the U.S. and source countries for migrant workers that being lax on labor law enforcement is ‘business-friendly.’ That is really not the case. For a number of brands now, it is less attractive for them to purchase goods from countries in which there is a lack of labor law enforcement because it means a higher risk and cost. Therefore, there’s a need to lobby for better laws and better enforcement.”

The webinar concluded with a lively panel discussion answering questions from the audience that explored short-term and long-term solutions to combat worker risks and strengthen the good labor supply chain practices.

  • Click here to access the free global Practical Guide to Responsible-Recruitment During and Post Covid-19 created by Stronger Together and the Responsible Recruitment Toolkit.
  • Register now for our next webinar Covid-19 Crisis Management: The Future of Produce Supply Chains in the Post-Covid Era join panelists: Ed Treacy, Produce Marketing Association; Kent Shoemaker, Lipman Family Farms; and Anabella de Freeman, Walmart.

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