Labor Shortages, a Long-Standing ProblemBy Jan Hogewoning | Tue, 03/24/2020 - 11:03
Farmers in the US continue to await more actions from the US State Department and US Department of Agriculture to substitute the lack of workforce as a result of the slowdown of new guest worker visas for Mexican and Central American citizens. In the short term, the harvests at most risk are leafy greens, broccoli, cauliflower, radishes and melons. March and April are a critical time for recruiting guest workers, with more than 77,000 H-2A worker visas certified in March and April last year.
The current urgency expressed by farmers overshadows the fact that for years, farms have been struggling to get workers for labor-intensive harvests. The H-2A guest worker program, a way to recruit legal agricultural workers, is an expensive process for farms, involving application fees per worker of US$190 excluding travel costs. These fees must be reimbursed by the farmer with the first worker pay check. Many farms across the US have historically relied on illegal workers instead. A network of connections helps get the worker from their village to the farm thousands of miles away. The sector has often been faced with criticism over the work conditions and low pay of its workers, not to mention the lack of protection in the case of farm accidents.
With more intense law enforcement from Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agents (ICE), many farmers expressed their concerns in 2019 that their workforce was at risk of being further depleted. Overall, illegal migration has dropped drastically since the mid-2000s with the ramping up of border patrol. To ensure availability of work hands, farm labor organizations set up offices for H-2A visas in villages in Mexico, driving around town with loudspeakers blaring inviting speeches.
Availability of farm hands decreased due to other factors too, including the aging of immigrant farm workers residing in the US. Another factor cited is the improvements of job prospects in Mexico. However, for many poor communities in Mexico, salary prospects for farm work in the US still surpasses any wage in their hometown. The average wage in the US can be between three and 10 times their local wage in Mexico.