Advocates call for more protection of migrant farmworkers

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Rep. Kara Hope, D-Holt, is sponsoring legislation to tighten state oversight of labor contractors.

Michigan House of Representatives

Rep. Kara Hope, D-Holt, is sponsoring legislation to tighten state oversight of labor contractors.

Capital News Service

LANSING – The number of farmhands in Michigan working on H-2A visas — which allow farms that are struggling to hire U.S. workers to bring in temporary laborers from other countries—increased from 277 in 2010 to over 15,000 in 2023, according to the Michigan Farm Bureau. 

“The [H-2A] program is critical to the survival of many of our family farms,” said John Kran, the Farm Bureau’s national legislative counsel.

But the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, an advocacy group that represents immigrants, says a lack of state and federal oversight of employers and the farm labor contractors that connect H-2A workers to short-staffed farms leaves them vulnerable to poor working conditions and exploitation. 

Christine Sauvé, the center’s policy, engagement and communications director, said one key aspect of H-2A visas is that workers must stay with one specific employer even if they’re unhappy there. 

“Transferability has long been an issue,” she said.

The center has offices in Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Detroit and Ypsilanti.

The debate continues at a time when farms are planning their workforce needs for the impending start of the 2024 growing season.

Another issue is employers’ control over H-2A worker housing and transportation, she said.

“It has a lot of limitations for the worker that puts them in a vulnerable position and open to these kinds of abuses,” she said. 

On top of that, she said, state agencies that regulate workplaces like the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity and the Michigan Occupational Health and Safety Administration are underfunded and can’t proactively investigate workplace conditions all across the state.

And even when they do inspect worker housing, Sauvé said, language barriers make it difficult for some farmworkers to communicate complaints to regulators.

“They don’t have staff that speak the language of the worker or an interpreter, so the worker might be trying to tell them about how there’s a deficiency, and they would miss that,” she said. 

While the Farm Bureau can’t enforce compliance with H-2A regulations, Kran said the organization is “very proactive in providing information and educational resources to our members, including agricultural employer labor seminars offering an employer compliance guide, among other resources.” 

A 2020 NBC News investigation into the H-2A program — which surged amid the Trump administration’s crackdown on undocumented workers – said the U.S. Labor Department closed 431 cases with confirmed H-2A violations in 2019, a 150% increase from 2014. 

But the issue of H-2A workers’ vulnerability to abuse is ongoing, Sauvé said. 

The center represents two H-2A workers in a legal battle against First Pick Farms, an Ottawa County-based blueberry grower that allegedly trafficked a group of workers from North Carolina to its farm in West Olive in 2017.

The suit accuses First Pick Farms of human trafficking and violating the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act.

The lawsuit, filed in June 2023, alleges that a First Pick Farms employee woke up a group of about 30 farmworkers in the middle of the night — including the two visa holders the center represents — and threatened to report them to immigration authorities if they didn’t travel with him to Michigan.

First Pick Farms Management and HB Hive and Co. have denied any violations and filed a motion last month to have the case dismissed, the federal court file shows.

Sauvé said both H-2A and non-H-2A undocumented workers commonly face threats related to their immigration status from employers and labor contractors. 

A goal of the center is to educate migrant workers and farmworkers about their rights, she said.

She said one way to address the problem of threats relating to immigration status — at least for H-2A workers — would be to include a path to citizenship in the program. Such a proposal had been included in a congressional bill that didn’t pass. 

The Agricultural Labor Working Group, a bipartisan group of federal lawmakers, recently released recommendations to improve the program, which included creating an H-2A pilot program for a three-year visa.

Gonzalo Peralta, a staff lawyer at the center and lead attorney on the First Pick Farms case, said the lawsuit is unique because the employer is clearly at fault and blame can’t be placed on a labor contractor. 

He said it’s common for employers and labor contractors to “shift the potential liability” over workers’ rights violations to each other, “because they can hide behind it and say, we’re not the direct employers.”

“That legal division is what’s causing so many issues,” he said. “Because then the owners of the farms are able to say, ‘Well we were not the employers. The direct employers are those recruiters that brought the workforce to us.’”

Sauvé said the center is keeping its eye on a pending bill in the state legislature that would establish rights for temporary laborers and potentially affect farmworkers and migrant workers. 

The sponsor, Rep. Kara Hope, D-Holt, said the bill is designed to regulate labor contractors. The bill is cosponsored by Democratic Reps. Emily Dievendorf of Lansing, Stephanie Young of Detroit and Rachael Hood of Grand Rapids, among others. 

It would require labor contractors to provide temporary workers with relevant information relating to their job, including duties, hours and work site locations. The contractors would be required to keep records about their interactions with workers and to remain in good standing with the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs.

“The beneficiaries are people that are currently being exploited by employers,” she said. “It’s a basic fairness issue.”

Hope said the bill would help workers across industries in the state by increasing oversight of labor contractors.

“It would be great if we had a more robust oversight in Michigan for workers,” she said. 

Hope’s bill is pending in the House Committee on Labor. 


Editor’s note: This story was updated on March 18, 224, to correct spelling and other errors.

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