U.S. Department of Labor data show that the majority of agricultural laborers whose legal rights have been violated are farmworkers in the U.S. on H-2A visas.
These workers make up about 11% of the overall agricultural workforce, according to the Woodrow Wilson Center, but an Investigate Midwest analysis found that they were owed 62% of the industry’s back wages in 2022. This represents a dramatic increase over the past 15 years. In 2008, by comparison, H-2A workers were owed 30% of the industry’s back wages.
Employers who are found to have violated labor laws may be subject to civil monetary penalties — punitive fines that are paid to the government rather than to the affected employees. Not all cases that find illegal wage withholding result in such fines, and employers may instead be ordered to pay workers withheld wages without additional penalties.
Farmers do not always directly employ H-2A laborers and may instead work with farm labor contractors, who recruit workers for placement on individual farms. Farm labor contractors have been fined the most money for H-2A labor violations from 2008 to the present.
The H-2A visa program, established in 1986, provides a legal pathway for migrant workers to perform seasonal work on American farms. The number of H-2A visa certifications has increased rapidly in recent years, more than tripling since 2008.
The Department of Labor lists agriculture as a “low wage, high violation” industry. In 2022, the average rate of hourly pay advertised in H-2A job postings was roughly $14 and workweeks averaged 43 hours. Agricultural employees, regardless of citizenship status, are ineligible for overtime pay due to an exemption in the Fair Labor Standards Act.
Ryan Murphy is a Gary Marx Journalism Fund intern.
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