I read with interest the wire story published in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on Nov. 13 subtitled "Foreigners edge out older hands." It references a lawsuit claiming domestic workers have been denied employment opportunities and are paid less than foreign labor. While I cannot speak to the specific case, the overall impression left by the story is misleading.
The H-2A program, through which legal seasonal agricultural labor from abroad is obtained, comes with detailed immigration and labor rules involving the Departments of Labor, Homeland Security, and State. To participate, an employer must first attempt to hire domestic workers. They must advertise the same terms and conditions of the positions being offered, including wages.
Only if an employer is unable to locate domestic workers under the terms advertised will the Department of Labor certify the positions as foreign-labor eligible. The "50 percent rule" requires the employer to hire any domestic job applicant who is "ready, willing and available" through 50 percent of the contract.
Under the H2-A program, employers must pay expensive legal fees to get approval for the recruitment of temporary foreign workers, and for workers' transportation to the consulate for visa processing, in addition to funding meals and hotel stays prior to departure from their home country. The employer must also pay for each $190 visa fee and fund transportation to the U.S. job site and for workers' return home. While here, the employer must furnish housing and three meals a day or provide facilities for the temporary workers to prepare their own meals.
Furthermore, under strictly enforced rules, the employer must provide the same wages and working conditions to any domestic worker in corresponding employment. This wage rate is significantly higher than the federal minimum wage. In 2021, the average Adverse Effect Wage Rate of $14.62 is more than twice the federal minimum wage of $7.25.
Most employers are diligent in following the regulations, as failure to do so can result in their debarment from the program, fines, and large civil penalties. The article focuses on South African farm hands, who are particularly popular in the Delta both because of their ability to speak English and their facility with modern agricultural technology. Last year, a one-way plane ticket from South Africa averaged $1,750.
Obviously, it would be against a farmer's economic interest to hire more expensive temporary H-2A agricultural workers if less costly domestic labor were available. Anyone who has ever met a farmer knows these are not financial choices they would make unless it was absolutely necessary. The alternative is crops rotting in the fields.
There are additional benefits to the seasonal labor program. While the story highlights South African agricultural workers, the vast majority of H-2A and H-2B (seasonal non-agricultural) workers are from Mexico, Jamaica, and Central America.
I first became familiar with this program as a vice consul adjudicating visas in Nicaragua in the early 2000s. I interviewed dozens of beekeepers who were coming to the United States for their 14th or 15th season. My local employees told me these were the richest people in their villages because they earned a good living for a few months every year then brought it home and invested the money in small businesses.
Almost 20 years later, as Consul General in Honduras, I again saw the transformative effect of legal, seasonal work to change lives and communities, while reducing irregular migration to the United States.
The H-2A and H-2B programs are proven to protect American jobs by ensuring U.S. businesses can continue to operate. In 2018, Dr. Stephen Bronars of the University of Chicago studied the effect of the program on the Pennsylvania landscape industry. He concluded that each H-2B worker supports 3.2 American jobs, and companies denied access to the program experienced a decline in revenue of $53,500.
Once I decided to retire from the Department of State and return home to Arkansas, I turned my mind to what I might do for the next chapter of my life. The clear choice was to meet the need in our economy for seasonal employees, when U.S. labor is not available, with temporary workers from countries where a legal paycheck can make a tremendous difference. The H-2A and H-2B programs benefit our farms and other businesses, hard workers from developing countries, and the goal of well-regulated borders.
Dana Deree, a retired career member of the U.S. Foreign Service, is president of Arkansas Global Connect.