Thursday, June 28, 2018


Photoessay by David Bacon
Civil Eats, 6/28/18

Next to a highway outside of Oxnard, California, I saw workers in a field near the ocean, cutting, packing, and loading cabbage. Their style of harvesting reminded me of the old lettuce crews of the 1960s and 70s, who worked in groups of three called trios - two men cutting and one man packing. This crew didn't have that trio formation, but they clearly worked at a speed they set for themselves, just as the lechugueros once did. That's not so common anymore. Most vegetable harvesters now work behind or in front of a big packing machine pulled through the field by a tractor. The machine sets the pace of the work. Not so here.

The crew moved down the field in a kind of collective rhythm. First came the cutters. Each reached for a cabbage head with one hand, and with the knife in the other, cleanly sliced the stem holding it to the soil. After trimming off dead or wilted leaves, the cutter placed each head next to the edge of the row for the packers who followed behind. Each of the packer's hands grabbed a cabbage and, holding the pair against each other, turned them and slid them into place in the box. And because a box has to be there, ready and waiting, other workers grabbed them from the truck, unfolded them, and tossed them into place as they ran ahead.

This crew, working for Pablo's Produce, was packing cabbage into plastic crates. A single man followed far behind the packers, stretching plastic film over the harvested heads. Finally came the loaders. On each side of a flatbed truck a worker lifted a full, heavy crate of a dozen or more heads to his chest. Hoisting it to shoulder height, he handed the box off to his partner high above, who lifted and tossed it into place in the growing stack, before turning for the next one.

Growing up, I used to think of cabbage as food from Irish and German tenements. Talking about the smell of boiled cabbage was a way people many times described the smell of poverty. Later, Salvadoran foundry strikers in San Francisco's Mission District introduced me to curtido, the combination of cabbage, carrots, and onions heaped on pupusas. Whether from Europe or the Americas, the idea that cabbage is the food of the poor and of immigrants is ingrained. According to the "Bourgeois of Paris," the anonymous journals of a 15th-century resident of Paris, in 1420 "the poor people ate no bread, nothing but cabbages and turnips and such dishes, without any bread or salt."

Cabbage cultivation began 3,000 years ago, by the Celts of Central and Western Europe. In Istanbul, Sultan Selim III wrote an ode to the cabbage at the height of the Ottoman empire in the late 1700s. The tight-leafed vegetable traveled across the Atlantic with artichokes and Brussels sprouts, and soon was grown and eaten by the original inhabitants here as well. Some communities claim to have discovered that, like menudo, eating cabbage even cures hangovers.

Whether or not they were thinking much about that history on that day in Oxnard, the men in the field (and it was only men) were very serious. Often, when I go into a field to take photographs, workers joke around. I do, too. Here they joked a little, too, but they didn't stop to do it, intent on keeping up their fast pace down the field.

I didn't ask how they were being paid, but my bet would be the piece rate, giving them a reason to work quickly. Even their jokes were about how fast they were, how they had what it takes to work bent over double, hours at a time, day after day, year in and year out. The loaders, doing the heaviest job in the field, really had that machismo. One, seeing me with the camera, struck a bodybuilding pose you might see in the gym.

However we eat it, and for whatever reason - kimchee, coleslaw, stuffed cabbage, or the strange British dish of bubble and squeak - all come out of this field and others like it. It can seem a far distance from the hands of the packer, or the exhaled grunt of the loader, to the pale, gelatinous leaves on the dinner plate. But we are connected - from the labor of these workers to our own appetite and hunger.

Jose throws boxes into the row, working ahead of the packers.

Refugio Lopez cuts cabbages.

Trimming the leaves after the head is cut.

The foreman watches as Avram cuts cabbages.

Loaders lift 45 pound boxes of cabbages up onto the bed of a truck in the field.

One loader jokes about how strong you have to be to do this work.

A worker packs cabbage heads into a box, holding two at a time.

A worker puts boxes together and throws them into the row.

Workers packing cabbage heads coordinate with each other to work quickly.

A worker puts plastic over the boxes of cut cabbage.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018


Photoessay by David Bacon

A couple of months before the eruption of the Kilauea volcano it was raining in Puna.  At the Saturday farmers’ market children pulled at their parents’ hands, asking for papayas or bananas, still wet from the downpour. In the bustle among the stalls, who was thinking of what was to come?

Within a few weeks we were mesmerized by images of fountains of glowing lava.  Video shot by drones showed rivers of molten rock heading implacably toward the ocean.  They've both provided us a visual language for understanding the destruction and awful price of the eruption.  So many homes burned out and now under the lava flow.  Hundreds of people displaced.

The people of Puna lived in a beautiful part of the Big Island, a district of many small farms.  People grow papayas and mangos.  Some produce in the stalls, like the taro, have local origins, while others, like Hawai’i’s giant avocados, came originally from the mainland. Orchids are sold in the stalls too, yet seem omnipresent throughout Puna's subtropical landscape.  

The people here are very diverse.  Many are poor - this is one of the least expensive places to live on the islands.  Native Hawai’ians live beside African-Americans, immigrants from Asian countries across the Pacific, and white retirees from the mainland.

In the Maku'u farmers’ market every Saturday you can see them all.  It’s not far from Pahoa and the edge of the eruption, just a few miles up highway 130.  The market must be having some hard times now, though.  Some of the farms have been overtaken by the lava.  Who knows whether displaced people can afford to buy fruit at the stalls of those farmers still able to come and sell what they’re growing?

These images were taken a few months before the eruption started.  They’re just a way of looking at who lives in Puna, a community living on the side of a volcano.


Tuesday, June 12, 2018


The H-2A Farm Worker Program creates a pipeline of cheap, disposable labor.
By David Bacon
The Progressive, June 1, 2018

ROYAL CITY, WA - H2A guest workers string up wire supports for planting apple trees, in an field owned by Stemilt Growers.  Carlos Gutierrez and Eduardo Lopez are immigrant contract workers recruited in Mexico.  They will work a few months, and then will have to return to Mexico.

On August 6 of last year, Honesto Silva Ibarra died in a Seattle hospital. Silva was a guest worker-a Mexican farm worker brought to the United States under contract to pick blueberries. He worked first in Delano, California, and then in Sumas, Washington, next to the Canadian border. His death, and the political and legal firestorm it ignited, has unveiled a contract labor scheme reminiscent of the United States' infamously exploitative mid-century Bracero Program.

In a suit filed January in the U.S. District Court in Washington State, the state's rural legal aid group, Columbia Legal Services charges that Silva's employer, Sarbanand Farms, "violated federal anti-trafficking laws through a pattern of threats and intimidation that caused its H-2A workforce to believe they would suffer serious harm unless they fully submitted to Sarbanand's labor demands."

Those demands, as described in the complaint, were extreme, and Silva's coworkers believe he died as a result.

Sarbanand Farms belongs to Munger Brothers, a family corporation in Delano, California. Since 2006, the company has annually brought more than 600 workers from Mexico under the H-2A visa program to harvest 3,000 acres of blueberries in California and Washington. Munger, the largest blueberry grower in North America, is the driving force behind the growers' cooperative that markets under the Naturipe label.

Companies using the H-2A program must apply to the U.S. Department of Labor, listing the work and living conditions and the wages workers will receive. The company must provide transportation, housing, and food. Workers are given contracts for less than one year, and must leave the country when their work is done. They can only work for the company that contracts them, and if they lose that job they must leave immediately.

According to the lawsuit complaint, workers were told that they had to pick two boxes of blueberries an hour or they'd be sent back to Mexico. In July and August, they were working twelve-hour shifts. The complaint says managers routinely threatened to send them home if they failed to meet the quota, and to blacklist them afterwards, preventing them from returning to the U.S. to work in subsequent years. One manager told them, "You came here to suffer, not for vacation."

ROYAL CITY, WA- A sign on the gate restricting access to the barracks in central Washington housing contract workers brought to the U.S. by growers under the H2A visa program by the Green Acres company.

Laboring in the rows under the hot sun, breathing smoke in the air from wildfires, many workers complained of dizziness and headaches. Nidia Perez, a Munger supervisor, purportedly told workers that "unless they were on their death bed," they could not miss work. Silva told a supervisor he was sick. The company, in a statement, said he had diabetes and "received the best medical care and attention possible as soon as his distress came to our attention." But fellow worker Miguel Angel Ramirez Salazar, gave a different account: "They said if he didn't keep working he'd be fired for 'abandoning work,' but after a while he couldn't work at all."

Silva collapsed, was taken to a local clinic, and then to the hospital where he died. CSI Visa Processing, the firm that recruited the workers in Mexico for Munger, later posted a statement on its website, saying "the compañero who is hospitalized, the cause was meningitis, an illness he suffered from before, and is not related to his work." Nidia Perez was the liaison between Munger Farms and CSI.

While Silva was in the hospital, sixty of his coworkers decided to protest. On August 4, they stayed in the labor camp instead of leaving for work. In addition to the production quota, they were angry about the food. The complaint says they were being charged $12.07 a day for meals, but the food sometimes ran out. When workers were fed, a supervisor marked their hands with "X" so they couldn't go back for more. They were forbidden to eat in the fields.

As the protestors sat in the camp, one worker called the Department of Labor, which sent out an inspector. The next day, when they tried to go back to work, company supervisors called out strikers by name and fired them for "insubordination." Perez told them they had an hour to get out of the labor camp before the police and immigration authorities would be called. Supervisors stood in front of the barracks, periodically calling out how much time was left.

Workers set up an impromptu encampment nearby with the help of Washington State's new farm worker union, Familias Unidas por la Justicia. After a few days, all eventually had to return to Mexico.

YAKIMA, WA- Members of the Yakima Nation of Native Americans join farm workers and other immigrants and community and labor activists marching through Yakima to celebrate May Day.

The death and firings at Sarbanand Farms highlight the explosive growth of this contract labor program. In 2006, U.S. employers were certified to recruit 59,112 workers under H-2A visas. Washington State certified only 814 H-2A positions that year. But by 2015, the numbers had mushroomed. Nationally, employers were certified to bring in 139,832 workers, including 12,081 in Washington State alone. Last year, Washington accounted for 18,535 workers out of 200,049 nationally.

Driving this growth are some very big operators. CSI (Consular Solutions Inc.), the recruiter for Munger Farms, is probably the largest single recruiter of H-2A workers from Mexico. The company, originally called Manpower of the Americas, was created to bring workers from Mexico for what is today the largest H-2A employer-the North Carolina Growers Association. The group was founded in 1989 by Stan Eury, who formerly worked for North Carolina's unemployment office, which plays a role in H-2A certification. Eury also created the North Carolina Growers Association PAC, a political action committee that donates almost exclusively to Republicans.

Under pressure from Eury, courts have concluded that anti-discrimination laws don't apply to H-2A workers. Employers are allowed to recruit men almost entirely. In 2001, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Age Discrimination in Employment Act does not cover workers recruited in other countries, leaving employers free to give preference to young workers able to meet high production quotas. In 2009, he challenged Obama Administration efforts to strengthen H-2A worker protections.

North Carolina Legal Aid battled Eury for years over complaints of wage theft, discrimination, and bad living and working conditions, until he signed a collective bargaining agreement with the Farm Labor Organizing Committee in 2004.

Despite his political clout, in 2015 Eury was forced to plead guilty to two counts of defrauding the U.S. government, fined $615,000 and was sentenced to thirteen months in prison. Nevertheless, the North Carolina Growers Association has been allowed to continue; last year, the Department of Labor approved its applications for 11,947 workers.

ROYAL CITY, WA- Jose Luis Sosa Sanchez and his fellow H2A contract workers in the kitchen of the barracks where they live in central Washington.

Meanwhile, CSI became a recruitment behemoth, supplying workers far beyond North Carolina. Its website boasts that it recruits more than 25,000 workers annually, through its network of offices in Mexico. A CSI handout for employers says "CSI has designed a system that is able to move thousands of workers through a very complicated U.S. Government program."

Workers recruited through CSI must sign a form acknowledging that their employer can fire them for inadequate performance, in which case they will have to return to Mexico. "The boss must report me to the authorities," it warns, "which can obviously affect my ability to return to the U.S. legally in the future."

Joe Morrison, an attorney with Columbia Legal Services, notes that H-2A workers are inherently vulnerable for several reasons. "Virtually all have had to get loans to support their families until they can begin sending money home, as well as to cover the cost of visas and transportation," he explains. "That basically makes them indentured servants. They have the least amount of legal protection, even less than undocumented immigrants."

H-2A workers are also excluded from the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act and beholden to one employer. "Even undocumented workers can vote with their feet if they don't like the job," Morrison says. "If H-2A workers complain, they get fired, lose their housing, and have to leave the country."

Many H-2A workers feel conflicted about their situation.

WAPATO, WA- After work Francisco Ramos, an H2A guest worker, talks with his wife and children in Mexico. These barracks belong to the Green Acres company.  Ramos' wife and three children live in the municipo of Ajutla in Oaxaca, Mexico, and he keeps their photos in his phone.

"We have papers, so we don't feel in danger," said Jose Luis Sosa Sanchez in a recent interview, at in a camp belonging to Stemilt Growers near Royal City, Washington. But he and other workers can't buy property and establish a sense of connection to the community.

"We just come to work. That's all," he says. And there is no time-and-a half for working more than eight hours. "We work six days, and sometimes seven. And the work here is hard. You're really exhausted at the end of the day."

Sosa expressed sadness over being separated from his family, including two young daughters. "It's hard to be far away from them, but what can I do? To move ahead I have to do this. So I talk with them on the phone. What else can I do? Every three days or so, in the afternoon after work. My wife says she feels OK, but who knows?"

Sergio Alberto Ponce Ponce, staying in the same barracks, had similar feelings. "I miss my wife. I've never been apart from her before. We sleep in each other's arms, but here, no. I call her every day. She'll send me a text, and then I'll call her the next chance I get-in a break at work or at lunch, and when I get back after work before it gets dark."

Ponce looked forward to going home to Mexico, but plans to return. "I'm going to keep working like this for as long as I can," he says. "I'd like to live here, but I have my family there."

ROYAL CITY, WA- H2A contract worker Sergio Alberto Ponce Ponce in the kitchen of the barracks of Stemilt Growers.

In 2013, representatives of the Washington Farm Labor Association, originally part of the Washington State Farm Bureau now called WAFLA, showed up at a large Washington State winery, Mercer Canyons. Garrett Benton, manager of the grape department and viticulturist, was then given a plan by the company owners for hiring workers for the following season.

"The plan separated out work to be done by the H-2A workers and work to be done by the local farm workers," Benton recalled in a declaration for a suit filed by Columbia Legal Services. "It left very little work for the local farm workers. Based on the plan and the presentation by the WAFLA people, I believed it was a done deal that the company would be bringing in H-2A workers in 2013."

The rules governing the H-2A program require employers to first advertise the jobs among local residents. Local workers must be offered jobs at the same pay the company plans to offer H-2A workers, and the H-2A workers must be paid at a rate that supposedly will not undermine the wages of local workers. That wage rate is set by the unemployment agency in each state, and is usually slightly above minimum wage.

But there is virtually no policing of the requirement that growers demonstrate a lack of local workers, or any efforts to hire them beyond a notice at the unemployment office.

Benton said many of Mercer Canyons' longtime local workers were told there was no work available, or were referred to jobs paying $9.88/hour while H-2A workers were being hired at $12/hour. The company, he said, even reduced the hours of those local workers it did hire in order to get them to quit.

WAPATO, WA- Luis Arias, an immigrant from Michoacan, Mexico, thins apricots so that the fruit on the tree will have space to grow.

"Working conditions got so bad for the local workers that they eventually went on strike on May 1, 2013," Benton stated. "They felt strongly that they were being given harder, less desirable work for less pay.... Mercer Canyons was doing everything it could to discourage local farm workers from gaining employment." The class-action lawsuit involving more than 600 farmworkers was settled a year ago, and Mercer Canyons agreed to pay workers $545,000 plus attorneys' fees, for a total of $1.2 million.

In central Washington, the barracks springing up for H-2A workers all look the same-dusty tan prefab buildings built around a common grass area. Billboards next to rural roads advertise the services of companies including "H-2A Construction Inc." This is a product of WAFLA's aggressive growth strategy.

"Our goal is to have 50,000 H-2A workers on the West Coast three years from now," WAFLA's director Dan Fazio told Michigan apple growers in 2015. In 2016, the group took in $7.7 million in fees for its panoply of H-2A services. It handles program application and compliance, provides transportation, recruits workers and gets their visas processed, and conducts on-site meetings with them.

The premise behind the H-2A program is that it allows recruitment of workers by an individual grower who demonstrates it can't find people to hire locally. Workers are then bound to the grower, and don't function as a general labor pool. But a labor pool is exactly what WAFLA advertises. 

WAFLA's "shared contract model" lets multiple growers share the same group of workers during the same harvest season. Workers might work for one grower one day, and another the next, at widely separated fields. The "sequential model" lets growers bring in workers for one harvest, and then pass them on to another grower for another harvest.

ROYAL CITY, WA- Barracks under construction in central Washington built to house contract workers brought to the U.S. by growers under the H2A visa program. 

In its annual report for 2014, WAFLA boasted about helping block a proposed Department of Labor rule to make employers who use the H-2A program provide housing for family members of domestic workers. "Can you imagine a worker with a family of six demanding housing for his family a month after the start of the season when nearly all beds are full?" it asked.

WAFLA has a close relationship with the Washington State Employment Security Department. Craig Carroll, the agency's agricultural program director overseeing H-2A certification, spoke at the group's "H-2A Workforce Summit" in January 2017, sharing the stage with numerous WAFLA staff members and Roxana Macias, CSI's director of compliance. Macias herself worked for the department for two years, and then for WAFLA for three years, before moving to CSI.

While the Employment Security Department is charged with enforcing the rules regarding H-2A contracts, its website states: "The agriculture employment and wage report will no longer be provided beginning with the May 2014 report due to a decline in funding." The department did request an investigation by the state attorney general into charges by Columbia Legal Services that WAFLA had tried to fix wage rates at a low level. That investigation is still pending.

Washington State also helps WAFLA by allowing it to use state subsidies for low-income farm worker housing to build barracks. This includes the ninety-six-bed Ringold Seasonal Farmworker Housing in Mesa, Washington. Subsidies were used to build another grower association's $6 million, 200-bed complex called Brender Creek in Cashmere, Washington.

Daniel Ford at Columbia Legal Aid complained about these handouts to the Washington Department of Commerce, noting that the state's own surveys showed that 10 percent of Washington farm workers were living outdoors in a car or in a tent, and 20 percent were living in garages, shacks, or "places not intended to serve as bedrooms." Corina Grigoras, the department's Housing Finance Unit managing director, responded that she couldn't "prohibit H-2A farmworkers residing in housing funded through the Housing Assistance Program," or even "require that housing assistance program housing be rented to H-2A employers only at market rates."

BURLINGTON, WA - In 2013 migrant farm workers went on strike against Sakuma Farms, a large berry grower in northern Washington State, and blocked the entrance into the labor camp where they live during the picking season.  The strikers wanted to stop the grower from bringing in H-2A workers from Mexico to do the work they usually do every year.

Rosalinda Guillen, executive director of Community2Community, a farm worker advocacy organization in Bellingham, Washington, says "the impact of this system on the ability of farm workers to organize is disastrous."

In 2013, when Sakuma Brothers Farms' longtime resident workers went on strike for at least $14 an hour, they were told that the company would not exceed the H-2A wage rate of  $12.39. In effect, the guest worker rate was used as a ceiling to keep wages from going up. Familias Unidas por la Justicia was organized during that strike. Its president, Ramon Torres, met the H-2A workers Sakuma had hired, "they said that they'd been told that if they talked with us they'd be sent back to Mexico," he remembered.

After the 2013 harvest, strikers received form letters telling them they'd been fired. Sakuma Brothers Farms then applied for 438 H-2A workers, enough to replace its entire workforce, saying it couldn't find local labor.  Familias Unidas collected letters from the strikers saying they were available to work, and turned them in to the Department of Labor.  Sakuma Brothers Farms withdrew the H-2A application, and had to rehire the strikers.  Because the workers saved their jobs, the union survived and finally signed its first contract last year. 

After the events last year that led to Silva's death, workers at Sarbanand Farms reached out to the new union and joined it during their protest. But Sarbanand insists that H-2A workers have no such organizing rights, saying in a statement: "Their H-2A employment contracts specifically state that they are not covered by a collective bargaining agreement, and H-2A regulations do not otherwise allow for workers engaging in such concerted activity." The statement added that when employees quit or are terminated, "the employer is not responsible for the worker's return transportation or subsistence cost, and the worker is not entitled to any payment guarantees."

In response to the organizing effort by Community2Community and Familias Unidas, growers launched a website to argue their case.  It claims, "The guest worker program provides higher pay for guest and domestic workers, plus the highest level of protection for workers anywhere." It features a photo of Guillen, accusing her of "outrageous lies against the Sumas farm." It says Silva died of "untreated diabetes," of which the company was "unaware."

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - Sakuma Farms striker Anselmo Aguilar is accompanied by Sarait Martinez of the Frente Indigena de Organizaciones Binacionales, as they go to the Department of Labor in San Francisco to protest the company's application to import H2A guest workers after their strike.

While the website conveys a certain desperate tone, most growers seem optimistic about the H2-A program's future, due in part to the election of Donald Trump as President. While Trump has railed against some guest worker programs, especially the H-1B program used extensively by the high-tech industry, he has been conspicuously silent about H-2A. In fact, Trump's family employs H-2A workers on its Virginia vineyard. And the H-2A program is popular among some of the most powerful Republicans in Congress, including Representative Kevin McCarthy, GOP House Majority Leader.

"We are very positive about the Trump Administration," WAFLA head Dan Fazio said at a meeting of his group in early 2017. "I don't think there is a person in this room who voted for President Trump who wouldn't vote for him again tomorrow."

Last fall, U.S. Representative Bob Goodlatte, Republican of Virginia, introduced a bill to expand the H-2A program. The bill, HR 4092, would create an H-2C visa category to replace H-2A, certifying the recruitment of 450,000 workers annually, a cap that would grow by 10 percent a year. Growers could employ workers year-round and re-enroll them for the following year while they are still in the country. Eventually up to 900,000 guest workers could be employed in the United States at any one time. Wages would be based at 115 percent of the federal or state minimum wage, or $8.34 an hour in states with the federal minimum wage of $7.25.

As the Trump Administration beefs up raids and enforcements, growers want to ensure a continued supply of cheap labor.

"ICE does audits and raids, and then growers demand changes that will make H2-A workers even cheaper by eliminating wage requirements, or the requirement that they provide housing," charges United Farm Workers Vice-President Armando Elenes. "Reducing the available labor and the increased use of H2-A are definitely connected. Growers don't want to look at how they can make the workplace better and attract more workers. They just want what's cheaper."

YAKIMA, WA- The hands of Manuel Ortiz, who came to the U.S. from Mexico as a bracero in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and spent decades working as a farm worker in California and Washington, show a life of work.

David Bacon is a writer and photojournalist, whose latest book is In the Fields of the North / En los campos del norte (Colegio de la Frontera Norte - University of California Press).

Sunday, June 10, 2018


Guest farm workers face exploitation, dangerous conditions.
By David Bacon
Capital and Main, 6/6/18
The American Prospect, 6/8/18

The influx of migrant agricultural workers brought to the U.S. on temporary visas means increased competition for resident laborers - and less bargaining power. The H-2A temporary agricultural program allows employers to bring workers from other countries, mainly Mexico, for temporary farm labor in the U.S. The workers are given visas that allow them to work in the U.S. but tie them to the employer that recruits them. Part 1 of this story explored unsafe working conditions and the explosive growth of the program.

Capital & Main is an award-winning publication that reports from California on economic, political, and social issues. The American Prospect is co-publishing this piece.

SANTA MARIA, CA - This trailer was listed as the housing for six workers by La Fuente Farming, Inc. All photos by David Bacon.

H-2A Workers Cheated and Housed Like Sardines

A legal challenge in Santa Maria, also brought by CRLA, highlighted the cost of the H-2A program to the H-2A workers themselves. In 2013 a pair of recruiters showed up in the Mexican state of Michoacán, promising jobs in California with free housing and transportation. To get the jobs, however, recruits had to pay a deposit of $1,500 each into the bank account of labor contractor Jorge Vasquez. 

Charging recruitment fees is a violation of federal H-2A regulations. Nevertheless, Jose Raul Gonzalez, Efrain Cruz, Ana Teresa Cruz and Rosaura Chavez paid the money and went to Tijuana to wait for their visas. There they were taken to a house where 12 recruits slept in each room. The workers had to wait six weeks before they finally crossed the border. Then their passports were taken away. Their recruiter, Vasquez's nephew Diego, said they'd get them back only after they came up with an additional $1,500.

Vasquez told them they couldn't leave the residence except to go to work, threatening them with deportation and saying he could hurt their families in Mexico.

The four wound up in Santa Maria picking strawberries, housed in a two-bedroom residence with 14 to 16 other H-2A workers. Each paid $80 a week for housing and food-another legal violation. Vasquez told them they couldn't leave the residence except to go to work, threatening them with deportation and saying he could hurt their families in Mexico. Every day they were dropped off at the fields at 4 a.m. and worked until 3 to 5 p.m. They picked 30 to 35 boxes of berries a day, at $1 per box, but their first week's pay was only $200. They were paid in cash, with no pay records. At the AEWR wage at the time, they should have been paid $721.

The second week they weren't paid at all. Instead, they were told their pay was going towards their $1,500 "debt." When Chavez asked to leave, Diego told him that he had to continue working until the debt was paid. Finally one of them escaped. The other three worked for two more weeks. After each deposited $1,500 into Vasquez's account, they were fired and thrown out of the house.

On May 17 Vasquez and two others were indicted by the Department of Justice and arrested for charging workers for visas and making false promises that the visas would last for three years. Since 2012 they have filed petitions for over 350 workers.

SANTA MARIA, CA - This complex at 1316/1318 Broadway in Santa Maria was listed as the housing for 160 workers by Big F Company, Inc. and Savino Farms. It was formerly senior housing, and the contractor built a wall around it, with a gate controlling who enters and leaves.

Bad housing conditions for H-2A workers are not unusual. Last October the city of Santa Maria filed suit against a local slumlord, Dario Pini, over extreme violations of health and housing codes in hundreds of apartments in eight complexes. One of them, the Laz-E-Daze Boardinghouses at 1300, 1308, 1318 and 1324 North Broadway, is used as housing for H-2A workers. There city inspectors cited Pini for "deteriorated concrete walkways, accumulated trash, abandoned inoperable vehicles, plumbing leaks, unpermitted construction work, bedbug infestation, cockroach infestation, lack of hot water, faulty and hazardous electrical systems and broken windows and missing window screens."

Two H-2A labor contractors list 1318 North Broadway as company housing in their applications for certification by the Department of Labor. Big F Company says 80 workers live there, and Savino Farms has 60 more. Other certification forms list even more questionable housing. La Fuente Farming Inc. lists one small dwelling at 403 W. Creston St. as housing for 14 workers. A completely tumble-down derelict trailer next to a strawberry field at 1340 Prell St. is listed as housing for six workers, also by La Fuente Farming. There is no record that the Department of Labor or the Employment Development Department actually examined the housing employers said they were providing.

Meanwhile, Santa Maria rents are rising. According to CRLA attorney Corrie Arellano, growers and contractors bring about 800 workers into the Santa Ynez Valley each year. "At first they filled up almost all the inexpensive motel rooms in town," she said. "Now they're renting out houses and apartments, and pushing up rents." Francisco Lozano, a Mixtec farm worker and community activist, and longtime Santa Maria resident, says his rent for a two-bedroom apartment has gone from $1,000 to $1,300 in three years. Mixtecos are an indigenous population in Mexico, whose language and culture long pre-date European colonization. A large percentage of California farm workers today are migrants from Mixteco and other indigenous Mexican towns.

"Our Mixteco community is upset for two reasons," he explained. "We struggled with the school district to get them to hire a Mixtec-speaking translator for our children, some of whom don't speak Spanish. But the new H-2A workers are all single men who leave after the harvest is over, so they have no stake in the schools or our families. In addition, Mixteco farm workers used to organize short strikes at the beginning of every picking season to push up piece rates and wages. Now people are afraid that if we do that the growers will bring in H-2A workers. I think H-2A is a kind of modern slavery."

Similar community concerns are reflected in a study of housing conditions in Salinas made by demographer Rick Mines, "The Social Impact of the H2A Program in the Salinas/Pajaro Valleys."

"There is a growing competition between the new migrants (the H-2A) and the old (the settled Mexican families)," he says. "This competition affects the availability of housing as the older migrants face higher prices and increased crowding in the apartments where most live. But, more importantly perhaps, the older settled workers will be getting less work as their younger co-nationals (the H2A) replace them in the fields." By one estimate, half of the strawberry workers in the Salinas-Watsonville area are H-2A workers.

SANTA MARIA, CA - Francisco Lozano, a Mixtec farm worker and community activist, with his wife at home in Santa Maria.

In Salinas two of California's largest vegetable growers, Tanimura & Antle and the Nunes Company, are building new worker housing. These complexes are similar to those being rapidly constructed by growers in Washington state for their H-2A workers. While the Tanimura complex, with 800 beds, was made available to local residents, and the Nunes family says it may do the same with its 600 beds, both complexes eventually will likely become housing for H-2A workers. Tanimura already brings 800 H-2A workers into Yuma, Arizona, every year.

The regulation that originally required each employer to advertise jobs to local residents first, and allowed them to recruit H-2A workers only if there was no local labor available, has been drastically altered. Today labor contractors are allowed to apply for certifications, recruit workers and then move them from grower to grower, field to field. In effect, these contractors employ a flexible labor pool they place at the disposal of many growers. The assertion that they've tried to find local labor is just that-an unchecked assertion.

Last year Fresh Harvest Inc. was certified for 4,623 H-2A workers, and Elkhorn Packing Co. for 2,653. Fresh Harvest calls itself "one of the largest H-2A employers in the Western United States." Its website has a special section where potential recruits in Mexico can register, with a schedule of recruitment events at offices in San Quintín, Baja California, and Zamora, Michoacán. Fresh Harvest manages the recruitment, certification and visa processing for growers, sets up housing, trains workers, files all government reports, and provides worker transportation. "We insist on taking an active role in the in-field/job site management of our employees," the site claims. The company's owner, Steve Scaroni, predicts that this year Fresh Harvest will bring over 7000 workers into California, Arizona, Nevada, Oregon, and Colorado, housing them in motels, apartments and labor camps.

Elkhorn Packing's website describes the company as "a leading custom harvester with operations in the Salinas Valley, Santa Maria, El Centro, and Yuma regions." With a contract labor force of thousands of H-2A workers dispersed that widely, it is unlikely that the individual growers whose fields it harvests have each determined separately that no local workers are available.

Using Immigration Enforcement to Expand H-2A

While growers' use of the H-2A program has increased sharply, immigration raids in rural areas of California have increased as well, especially following the election of President Trump.

While growers' use of the H-2A program has increased sharply, immigration raids in rural areas of California have increased as well, especially following the election of President Trump. The high visibility of the Border Patrol in farm worker towns was dramatized in March by the deaths of an immigrant couple in Delano, who crashed their van while fleeing in terror from immigration agents. Over the last six months the Department of Homeland Security has initiated document checks leading to the firing of hundreds of workers at several large San Joaquin Valley farms, including Pitman Family Farms and Poindexter Nut Company in Sanger, Bee Sweet Citrus in Fowler, and Fresh Select in Dinuba.

Grower concern about maintaining a stable workforce has been exacerbated by threats from the President to build more border walls, and to use the E-Verify database to identify undocumented workers for termination or deportation. WGA President Nassif, who belongs to Trump's agricultural advisory board, argues that this increased immigration enforcement is restricting the number of immigrant workers. That complaint, in turn, provides a rationale for expanding the H-2A program, reducing its requirements, and even redrafting the contract labor scheme entirely. 

Replacing undocumented workers with H-2A recruits is not a new idea. In 2010 immigration authorities went through the payroll records of one of Washington State's largest apple growers, Gebbers Farms, and identified 550 people they said had no legal immigration status. After the company fired them, it was then encouraged to use the H-2A program. According to Gebbers manager Jon Wyss, "Our first year, we hired 300 workers from Jamaica and 750 workers from Mexico for a total 1,150 H-2A workers." By 2017 Gebbers was bringing more than 2,000 H-2A workers, Wyss testified to the House Immigration Subcommittee.

That committee was considering a bill sponsored by Virginia Republican Congressman Bob Goodlatte, chair of the Judiciary Committee, called the Agricultural Guestworker Act. Goodlatte explained its goal: "A reliable, efficient, and fair program that provides American farmers access to a legal, stable supply of workers ... [in] a new, flexible, and market-driven guest worker program."

That bill would have provided employers with 450,000 workers yearly under a new H-2C visa at states' minimum wages, or 115 percent of the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour. Ten percent of workers' wages would be withheld, and could be collected at the U.S. consulate only after returning to their home country. The proposal would have eliminated requirements that growers provide transportation and housing, and allowed them to employ guest workers year around, so long as they returned to the border every year to "touch back" before returning to their jobs. 

SANTA MARIA, CA - Bars on the windows of the complex at 1316/1318 Broadway, listed as the housing for H-2A guest workers.

In January, Goodlatte incorporated the guest worker bill into a larger immigration bill, the Securing America's Future Act. It would eliminate family-based visas for parents, children, brothers and sisters of legal immigrants and citizens. Guest workers would be prohibited from bringing their families with them. All employers would have to use the E-Verify system to identify and fire all undocumented workers.

"The White House right now is fully committed to the Goodlatte bill and trying to pass [it] out of the House," a spokesperson told the Washington Times in February. President Trump owns a Virginia vineyard that employs H-2A workers, and won strong support from rural agricultural areas of California increasingly dependent on guest worker labor.  Some of the state's most powerful Republican congressmen have roots in agribusiness, including Jeff Denham, Devin Nunes, and David Valadao. The House Majority Leader, Kevin McCarthy, represents Bakersfield and Kern County.

The Western Growers Association declined to support the Goodlatte bill, saying its touch-back provision was unworkable and its 410,000 annual guestworker limit too low.  However, H-2A contractors like the Washington Farm Labor Association (WAFLA) are optimistic. "We are very positive about the Trump administration. I was in D.C. in December and met with the transition team, and our industry lobbyists have followed up," WAFLA head Dan Fazio told a meeting of growers not long after the election, the Seattle Times' Hal Bernton reported.  "I don't think there is a person in this room who voted for President Trump who wouldn't vote for him again tomorrow."

The Trump administration isn't simply waiting for Congress to decide on the Goodlatte bill. On May 24 the secretaries of Agriculture, Homeland Security, State and Labor issued an "H-2A Agricultural Worker Visa Modernization Joint Cabinet Statement" promising to change the program rules "in a way that is responsive to stakeholder concerns and that deepens our confidence in the program as a source of legal and verified labor for agriculture." While the promise is unspecific, changed regulations could do away with guarantees of housing and transportation, AEWR wage rates, and protections for resident farm workers-all changes growers have advocated. The statement also says the administration "plans to incentivize farmers' use of the E-Verify program." Requiring growers to use E-Verify to identify undocumented employees and fire them could lead to hundreds of thousands of workers losing their jobs, given that about half the farm labor workforce of two million people have no legal immigration status.

United Farm Workers national vice president Armando Elenes, however, condemned the political agenda that combines increased immigration enforcement with rising use of the H-2A program. "There's a huge explosion of H-2A in California," he said. "ICE does audits and raids, and then growers demand changes that will make H2-A workers even cheaper, by eliminating wage requirements or the requirement that they provide housing. Reducing the available labor and the increased use of H2-A are definitely connected."

Friday, June 8, 2018


Guest farm workers face exploitation, dangerous conditions.
By David Bacon
Capital and Main, 6/6/18
The American Prospect, 6/8/18

Many migrant workers in California on H-2A temporary agricultural visas are forced to contend with unsafe working conditions, wage theft and other labor law violations. The H-2A temporary agricultural program allows employers to bring workers from other countries, mainly Mexico, for temporary farm labor in the U.S. The workers are given visas that allow them to work in the U.S. but tie them to the employer that recruits them. Part 2 of this story documents Migrant workers housed like sardines, and the use of immigration enforcement to expand the H-2A visa program.

Capital & Main is an award-winning publication that reports from California on economic, political, and social issues. The American Prospect is co-publishing this piece.

CAMP PENDLETON, CA - H2-A guest workers pick tomatoes for grower Harry Singh. Workers are kept behind fences where union and legal aid workers can't reach them. All photos by David Bacon.

Tomato grower Harry Singh had an idea for speeding up the harvest in the fields he rents at the Camp Pendleton Marine Base near San Diego. His foreman told Serafín Rincón, 61, to pick beside two imported contract workers in their 20s. In the summer heat, Rincón was told to run. He could hardly keep up.

Rincón had come to work with his friends Santiago Bautista and Rufino Zafra They were all longtime farm workers in the area. Bautista had been working in San Diego since 2003, and Zafra since 1975. All day they had to listen to gritos(shouting) and insults from their boss Celerino when they fell behind. "Stupid donkey, you're old now," he shouted at them. "You can't make it anymore!"

The three even started trying to hold it when they had to go to the bathroom, after being yelled at for going too often. Not that using those bathrooms was a pleasant experience. The toilet paper ran out so often they started bringing their own from home. Zafra would even wipe down the filthy port-a-potty with paper towels. The drinking water tasted like "hot soup," Bautista said. He had a heart attack at work, but still the foreman wouldn't let him stop working. A medical examiner said later the attack was caused by his working conditions.

Finally Rincón was fired, and the three sued Harry Singh's company, West Coast Tomato, over the abuse.

Singh was one of the first growers to bring H-2A temporary agricultural workers to California. These young, mostly male workers are recruited in other countries, mainly Mexico. They're given visas that allow them to work in the U.S. but tie them to the employer that recruits them. "Many of the younger workers whom our plaintiffs had to keep pace with were H-2As," explained Jennifer Bonilla of California Rural Legal Assistance. She introduced expert testimony of Dr. Kenneth Silver, who tied the speed-up of the production requirements given the younger H-2A workers. 

CAMP PENDLETON, CA - Behind this gate H2-A guest workers working for grower Harry Singh sleep in a labor camp on Singh's ranch, keeping them isolated from the surrounding community. Guest workers can't leave their jobs without being deported.

The U.S. Department of Labor allows growers to put production quotas into the contracts under which workers are recruited to come to the U.S., and to fire workers for not meeting them. If H-2A workers get fired before the end of their contract, they lose its guaranteed weeks of work and pay. They also become immediately deportable. The grower doesn't even have to pay their transportation to the border, much less to the town they came from.

That gives a grower a lot of leverage to get workers to work at an inhuman pace. And because the H-2A workers can be forced into it, workers who are living in the U.S., and laboring at the same job, get pressured into it as well. Humiliation, firings, and even heart attacks are the result.

The Impact of the Explosive Growth of H-2A

This is just one impact on farm workers in California of the explosive growth of the H-2A guest visa program. Like everything connected to the state's agriculture, it's big business. In 2016-an enormous production of food that has little to do with agribusiness's oft-declared goal of "feeding the nation": Almost half of what's grown here leaves the country in exports worth $20 billion.

Employing at peak season almost three quarters of a million people (719,000 in 2017 in California alone), this enormous industry needs workers. The growth of a captive, low-wage and vulnerable workforce at its heart has a profound effect, not just here, but across the nation.

Growers applied to the U.S. Department of Labor for certification to bring 44,619 H-2A workers into U.S. fields in 2004. Last year the number certified had grown to 200,049-over 450 percent in a little over a decade. California growers brought in 3,089 H-2A workers in 2012. In 2017 that had mushroomed to 15,232-a 500 percent increase in just five years.

The impact of guest workers will grow even more severe if Congress passes a bill (H.R. 4760, Securing America's Future Act) that would not only put H-2A on steroids, but would do away with what little (mostly unenforced) protections currently exist for farm workers, both resident and recruited. Farmworker Justice, an advocacy group for farm workers in Washington, D.C., calls the bill a "virulently anti-immigrant and anti-worker piece of legislation." And four cabinet secretaries in the Trump administration have already promised growers to make the H-2A program more grower-friendly.

Growers claim that because of increased border enforcement, the number of available farm workers is falling, although the industry employed virtually the same number, 724,000, 20 years ago. "There is a severe ag labor shortage, and it's only going to get worse," wrote Tom Nassif, president of the Western Growers Association, on the WGA webpage. "Changing demographics and stringent regulatory barriers are causing the flow of workers crossing the border to dramatically slow down." The Department of Labor estimates that about half of U.S. farm workers are undocumented, and in California the percentage is higher. 

Unemployment in California's farm worker towns, however, is always much higher than in urban areas. In April, for instance, the unemployment rate in Imperial County was 14.4 percent, in Merced County 8.7 percent, and Monterey County 6.7 percent. (In Los Angeles, it was 4.1 percent and San Francisco, 2.1 percent.) Yet according to Nassif, "Increased pay and overtime benefits aren't going to attract any additional workers to the field. Those extra workers don't exist."

In reality, farm wages have been falling since the late 1970s, when the United Farm Workers was at its peak strength, and the base labor rate in union contracts was twice the minimum wage.

In reality, farm wages have been falling since the late 1970s, when the United Farm Workers was at its peak strength, and the base labor rate in union contracts was twice the minimum wage. Even non-union employers had to compete for workers by paying union wages. Today the average wage of California farm workers is just above the minimum wage-$11.68/hour by one estimate. The H-2A program, critics charge, allows growers to keep wages low, giving them an alternative to raising pay to attract labor.

ROYAL CITY, WA- Carlos Gutierrez, an immigrant H-2A guest worker, strings up wire supports for planting apple trees in a Stemilt Company field.

Another CRLA case against Harry Singh dramatized the way West Coast Tomato could pit H-2A workers against local laborers to reinforce low wages and unsafe working conditions. The suit, Espinoza et al. v. West Coast Tomato Growers, accused the company of evading two legal requirements-that it hire local residents before recruiting H-2A workers, and that it pay local workers at least as much as it pays the imported laborers. CRLA's plaintiffs included Elisa Valerio, Guillermina Bermudez, and Felix Gomez, experienced local farm workers employed in the West Coast Tomato packing shed.

Once tomatoes are picked, they're brought into a hot cavernous building where they're sorted on high-speed conveyor belts. The three workers described intense pressure to maintain a very fast work pace, much like what Rincón experienced in the fields. 

Both local and H-2A workers did the same work. West Coast Tomato, however, called the H-2A workers "packers" and the resident workers "sorters." Its application to the Department of Labor claimed it couldn't find local "packers" and therefore needed to fill jobs in the shed with H-2A workers. West Coast would hire only local workers as "sorters."

Then the company paid sorters less than the H-2A wage. This rate, called the Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR), is set every year by California's Employment Development Department. In 2014 it was $11.01/hour. The three workers, however, were paid the minimum wage-$8/hour until July 2014, and $9/hour afterwards-because they were "sorters" and not "packers."

Both the older local workers and younger H-2A contract laborers had to meet high production quotas. If the line stopped, the three plaintiffs said, the company docked their pay until it began again (a violation of state law). And when it was running they couldn't even leave to use the bathroom. Valerio, Bermudez and Gomez couldn't keep up and were fired in August 2014. 

U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Whelan rejected West Coast's classification scheme, saying it allowed the company "to hire H-2A workers as 'tomato packers' without a legitimate shortage of qualified Americans and pay them more per hour than its American equivalent 'tomato sorters.'"

CRLA Litigation Director Cynthia Rice charged, "It's good that we can win these cases and get justice for some workers, but it's a small number compared to the total number of H-2A and affected resident workers in the California workforce."

SALINAS, CA - Migrant farm workers and their supporters march in Salinas to protest immigration raids, in a march was organized by the United Farm Workers.

Part Two next week.

Sunday, June 3, 2018


By David Bacon
48 Hills, 6/4/18

Imam Abu Qadir Al-Amin speaks at the tribunal about the need to abolish both prisons and detention centers.

Testimony given by David Bacon at the People's Tribunal at the West County Detention Center in Richmond, CA

We've heard the living experiences of people who have had no alternative to leaving home to escape violence, war and poverty, who now find themselves imprisoned in the detention center in front of us.  And we have to ask, who is responsible?  Where did the violence and poverty come from, that forced people to leave home, to cross our border with Mexico, and then to be picked up and incarcerated here? 

Overwhelmingly, it has come from the actions of the government of this country, and the wealthy elites that it has defended.

It came from two centuries of colonialism, from the announcement of the Monroe Doctrine, when this government said that it had the right to do as it wanted in all of  the countries of Latin America.  It came from the wars that turned Puerto Rico and the Philippines into direct colonies over a century ago.

It came from more wars and interventions fought to keep in power those who would willingly ensure the wealth and profits of U.S. corporations, and the misery and poverty of the vast majority of their own countries.

Smedley Butler, a decorated Marine Corp general, told the truth about what he did a century ago:

"I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism," he said. "I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested."

When people in El Salvador and Guatemala and Honduras and Haiti tried to change the injustice of this, the U.S. armed rightwing governments that made war on their own people.  Sergio Sosa, a combatiente in Guatamala's civil war who now heads a workers' center in Omaha, says simply, "You sent the guns and we buried the dead."

Two million people left El Salvador in the 1980s and crossed the border to the U.S.  How many more hundreds of thousands from Guatemala?  How many more after the U.S. overthrew Aristide in Haiti?  How many from Honduras after Zelaya was forced from office, and the U.S. said nothing while sending arms to the army that uses them still today against Honduran people?

The poverty that forced 3 million corn farmers from Mexico to come to the U.S was a product of the North American Free Trade Agreement, making it impossible for them to grow the maize they domesticated and gave to the world?  Now Archer Daniels Midland and Continental Grain Company use that inheritance to take over the Mexican corn market to make profits.

When the U.S. sought to impose the Central American Free Trade Agreement on El Salvador, Otto Reich, from the U.S. State Department, told Salvadorans that if they elected a government that wouldn't go along with it, the U.S. would cut off the remittances sent by Salvadorans in the U.S. so that their families at home can live.

Young people, brought from El Salvador as children, joined gangs in Los Angeles so they could survive in the city's most dangerous neighborhoods.  Then they were arrested and deported back to El Salvador, and the gang culture of L.A. took root there, with the drug trade sending cocaine and heroin back to the U.S.  We are the market, in barrios and working class neighborhoods here.

When people arrive at the U.S. border, they are treated as criminals.  John Kelly, a much more dishonest general who now advises Trump in the White House, calls migration "a criminal-terror convergence."

Yet people coming to the U.S. are part of the labor force that puts vegetables and fruit on the table, cleans the office buildings, and empties the bedpans and takes care of people here when they get old and sick.  Turning people into criminals, and passing laws saying people can't work legally, makes people vulnerable, and forces them into the lowest wages in our economy.

Knowing where the violence and poverty are coming from, and who is benefitting from this system is one step towards ending it.  But we also have to know what we want in its place.  What is our alternative to this detention center, and the imprisonment of the people inside?  To the hundreds of people who still die on the border every year?

We have had alternative proposals for many years.  One set of alternatives was called the Dignity Campaign.  The American Friends Service Committee had another.  What we want isn't hard to see.

We want an end to mass detention and deportations, and the closing of the detention centers.
We want an end to the militarization of the border.
We want an end to the idea that working should be a crime if you have no papers.

But we also want to deal with the root causes.
We want an end to the trade agreements and economic reforms that force people into poverty and make migration involuntary, the only means to survive.
And we want an end to military intervention, to military aid to rightwing governments, and to U.S. support for the the repression of the movements fighting for change.

If you think this isn't possible or just a dream, remember that a decade after Emmett Till was lynched in Mississippi the U.S. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act.  That same year, 1965, Congress put the family preference immigration system into law, the only pro-immigrant legislation we've had for a hundred years. 

That was no gift.  A civil rights movement made Congress pass that law.  We remember that when that law was passed we had no detention centers like the one in front of us.  There were no walls on our border with Mexico, and no one died crossing it, like the hundreds who now perish in the desert every year.  There is nothing permanant or unchangeable about these institutions of oppression.  We have changed our world before, and our movement here can do that again.