USDA’s Cancellation of Farm Labor Survey will Result in Massive Wage Cuts

On September 30, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued a notice cancelling the Farm Labor Survey (FLS) of agricultural employers. The FLS is one of the best sources of information on the wages of agricultural workers—and the Department of Labor (DOL) is required to use it to determine what is known as the Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR), the main minimum wage that employers must pay to farmworkers employed through the H-2A agricultural guestworker program, as well as similarly situated U.S. workers. In the absence of  FLS results, DOL will lack the necessary information to adequately set the AEWR for 2021 and beyond. This will result in massive wage cuts for both U.S. farmworkers and farmworkers  recruited and employed through the H-2A program. Consequently, a reduction in H-2A guestworker wages risks expansion of the structural and systemic conditions for labor trafficking in U.S.agriculture. Wage cuts  may increase the financial burden of migrant guestworkers, many of whom are particularly vulnerable to debt bondage, a nonviolent method of coercion in labor trafficking.

Throughout the years we have seen a rapid expansion of the H-2A program. Over 250,000 H-2A jobs were certified in FY 2019 and the program is on track to surpass that in FY 2020.

Rather than giving the farmworkers the Trump administration has deemed “essential” a raise in 2021, Trump has opted to give them a pay cut instead, while giving yet another subsidy to the farm industry in the form of lower labor costs—on top of the $32 billion in federal subsidies the industry has already received in 2020—and during a year in which farm employers increased their net income by 23%.

The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) for decades has prohibited employers from hiring guestworkers at wage rates that would “adversely affect” the wages and working conditions of U.S. farmworkers, which is implemented through the AEWR. This is an important protection for both domestic farmworkers and migrant guestworkers that helps keep farm employers from manipulating the immigration system in order to cut labor costs and degrade standards for all.

Migration that Works objects to  this sudden and abrupt cancellation of the FLS and sees this action from the Trump Administration as creating an incentive to exploit an already-vulnerable workforce. The H-2A program is rife with abuse, ranging from wage theft to labor trafficking. In a survey done among H-2A workers, only 43% of the respondents indicated that they had been paid all of the wages they were owed. This action from the Trump administration signals a move towards further weakening the very few labor protections available to farmworkers. It will have a significant impact on farmworkers’ income, which is already precarious, and make them even more vulnerable to economic insecurity and labor trafficking.

Migration that Works is a coalition of labor, migration, civil rights, and anti-trafficking organizations and academics working to address abuses in international labor recruitment.

Throughout the years we have seen a rapid expansion of the H-2A program. Over 250,000 H-2A jobs were certified in FY 2019 and the program is on track to surpass that in FY 2020.

Rather than giving the farmworkers the Trump administration has deemed “essential” a raise in 2021, Trump has opted to give them a pay cut instead, while giving yet another subsidy to the farm industry in the form of lower labor costs—on top of the $32 billion in federal subsidies the industry has already received in 2020—and during a year in which farm employers increased their net income by 23%.

The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) for decades has prohibited employers from hiring guestworkers at wage rates that would “adversely affect” the wages and working conditions of U.S. farmworkers, which is implemented through the AEWR. This is an important protection for both domestic farmworkers and migrant guestworkers that helps keep farm employers from manipulating the immigration system in order to cut labor costs and degrade standards for all.

Migration that Works objects to  this sudden and abrupt cancellation of the FLS and sees this action from the Trump Administration as creating an incentive to exploit an already-vulnerable workforce. The H-2A program is rife with abuse, ranging from wage theft to labor trafficking. In a survey done among H-2A workers, only 43% of the respondents indicated that they had been paid all of the wages they were owed. This action from the Trump administration signals a move towards further weakening the very few labor protections available to farmworkers. It will have a significant impact on farmworkers’ income, which is already precarious, and make them even more vulnerable to economic insecurity and labor trafficking.

Migration that Works is a coalition of labor, migration, civil rights, and anti-trafficking organizations and academics working to address abuses in international labor recruitment.

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