Withholding pay, stealing documents, under-reporting hours – these are all common employer abuses seasonal workers on U.S. visas face.
In 2013, more than 74,000 H-2A seasonal agriculture work visas and 57,600 H-2B non-agriculture seasonal work visas were issued.
The number of workers on H-2A seasonal agriculture visas increased 23 percent between 2009 and 2013.
Because of a lack of information about these jobs, workers’ chance of avoiding employer abuse is jeopardized before they even begin working.
According to a recent Government Accountability Office report, job and employer information is not publicly available, so workers and their advocates cannot verify if jobs are legitimate.
“Without accurate, accessible information about employers, recruiters and jobs during the recruitment process, potential foreign workers are unable to effectively evaluate the existence and nature of specific jobs… potentially making them more vulnerable to abuse,” the report says.
Additionally, the Department of Labor does not collect any information on the third-party recruiters companies use to find workers. About 44 percent of employers use third-party recruiters, according to Department of Homeland Security petition forms.
This leads to one of the major problems the Government Accountability Office report highlights – a lack of sharing of information among agencies.
Multiple agencies are involved in screening employers, including the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Labor and the Department of State, but little information is shared between the agencies.
This means, as the Government Accountability Office found, an employer who is blacklisted by one agency can still be approved by another agency.
The GAO cited specific instances.
“Officials at State’s Kentucky Consular Center (KCC) said they compare petitions that DHS approves to DOL’s public debarment list and have, in fact, found a small number of approved petitions from debarred employers,” the report says.
Information on employers are still all in paper, though there has been talk of sharing information between the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Labor electronically for two years, according to the report.
The Department of Homeland Security said its goal was to have a signed agreement to share information among agencies by fiscal year 2016.
“The draft agreement is currently undergoing internal agency review,” Jim Crumpacker, director of the departmental GAO-Office of Inspector General Liaison Office wrote in response to the GAO report’s recommendations.
Members of Congress call for H-2A reform
Last month, nearly 60 members of Congress signed a letter to U.S. Speaker of the House John Boehner and Chairman Bob Goodlatte that called the current H-2A program “unworkable.”
The members of Congress expressed concern that the current visa system for seasonal agriculture workers does not function in conjunction with the E-Verify program. Employers use the E-Verify program to screen for undocumented workers.
“We stand ready to work with you to ensure enforcement of our immigration laws while also implementing critically needed reform for agricultural labor,” the Congress members wrote.
Miguel Keberlein Gutiérrez, supervisory attorney at Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago, said at a Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting conference this month that agricultural labor could not be done in this country without recruiting outside labor.
“The crew leader or the company itself goes to the government and says ‘We can’t find enough U.S. eligible workers to do this,’” he said. “Which, in the case of agriculture and some of this work, I actually would says that’s probably true because it’s such brutal work.”