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Dignity or Exploitation – What Future for Farmworker Families in the United States?

Poplar, CA 2020, Maria Madrigal picks persimmons in a field near Poplar, in the San Joaquin Valley
Poplar, CA 2020, Maria Madrigal picks persimmons in a field near Poplar, in the San Joaquin Valley, in a crew of Mexican immigrants. Many workers wear facemasks or bandannas as a protection against the coronavirus. © 2021 David Bacon

Dignity or Exploitation — What Future for Farmworker Families in the United States? documents the systematic abuse of workers in the H-2A program and its impact on the resident farmworker communities, confronted with a race to the bottom in wages and working conditions.

H-2A workers also face disproportionate exposure to the COVID-19 pandemic. The report describes some of the most acute situations, and analyzes the basic reason for the high infection rate — congregate housing, or barracks, where workers sleep in bunk beds. This housing has been held legal by authorities responsible for workers' health.

The report details how the competition between “guest workers” and the domestic labor force depresses the wages, increases the pressure to intensify and speed-up work, and undermines the bargaining power of all farmworkers in the US. Growth of the H-2A program has also exacerbated an existing housing crisis for rural workers, as recruitment has skyrocketed from 10,000 visas in 1992 to over 250,000 in 2020.

The exploitative conditions and vulnerability of migrants who came under the H-2A program are very close to those of the bracero program that was in place from 1942 to 1964. The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, which put an end to the bracero program, established an immigration system based on family reunification and community stability, protecting the wages, rights, health, and housing of farmworkers. This system is under increasing threat today.