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California’s International Contract Workers Could Gain Some Protections Through Bills Awaiting Gov. Newsom’s Signature

New laws would fight abuse by prohibiting recruiters from charging fees and better informing workers of their rights.




Alfonso Guevara, an H-2A worker in Oregon, uses a short-handled hoe, “el cortito," that has been banned in California since 1975 because repeated use causes damage to the spine. In California, AB 857 would require his crew boss to give him a list of his rights, including the prohibition of this kind of work. Photos by David Bacon.

Two bills awaiting Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signature — or veto — would broaden protections for an estimated 300,000 foreign contract workers laboring in California on work visas. While the documented abusive conditions in “guest worker” visa programs have led to calls for their termination, these bills would offer some improvements to the workers involved.

AB 364, authored by Assemblymember Freddie Rodriguez (D-Pomona), seeks to regulate the recruitment of many workers brought to the U.S. under contract labor visas. AB 857, coauthored by State Assemblymember Ash Kalra (D-San Jose) and State Senator María Elena Durazo (D-Los Angeles), would give guest workers on H-2A visas (contract workers in agriculture) notification of their rights under state law, making it easier for them to go to the Labor Commissioner if those rights are violated.

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“Congress has failed to act to protect workers who are recruited abroad through temporary work visa programs,” explains Daniel Costa, director of Immigration Law and Policy Research at the Economic Policy Institute. “The abuses of labor recruiters have included requiring the payment of illegal fees to obtain jobs, which can result in debt bondage, as well as cases of wage theft, discrimination, human trafficking and other abuses. But since these U.S. work arrangements are being set up abroad, it is difficult to regulate the behavior of recruiters.”

Protections that AB 364 would provide include a prohibition of recruitment fees by labor recruiters operating outside the U.S., and a requirement that they give workers a written contract specifying their wages and working conditions when they’re recruited. Because it’s difficult for workers to get paid for violations by a recruiter operating abroad, the recruiters would have to have a California address and post a bond.

Rodriguez’s legislation was written to expand state protection to work visa holders omitted in a previous bill, SB 477, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2014. That law only applies to workers in one of the smallest visa categories, the H-2B visa program. They make up less than 1% of temporary work visa holders in California. H-2B workers are employed in jobs often called “low-skilled,” but not agriculture — primarily hotel and hospitality, meatpacking, domestic and home care, and landscaping jobs. 
Assemblymember Rodriguez’s AB 364 would cover all work visa holders — those on A-3, B-1, H-1B, H-1C, H-2A, H-2B, L-1, O-1, 1, P-3 and TN visas — except for students on J-1 visas who also work.

Nationally, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security estimates the number of temporary work visa holders is 1.6 million, while Costa believes it’s closer to 2 million. The DHS says about 300,000 work in California, a number they admit is not a direct count but an estimate. Costa estimates that AB 364 would cover at least 310,500 workers.

Farmworkers brought to the U.S. in the H-2A visa program harvest melons in July 2021 in a field near Firebaugh, California. At 9 in the morning, it was more than 95 degrees, and would soon surpass 110. It was the second day of work in the U.S. for the indigenous Cora workers from Nayarit, Mexico; they were not yet accustomed to the high temperatures. One worker fainted and got a nosebleed from the heat. They worked for the labor contractor Rancho Nuevo Harvesting in a field that belongs to the Fisher family, a large California grower.

Workers come to California to work in several basic industries or job categories. The H-2A visa program covers farmworkers. They can only stay for less than a year, and if they are fired by the contractor or grower who brought them, they must leave the country. Growers were certified to bring more than 317,000 H-2A workers to the U.S. in 2021, three times the number eight years earlier. Of these, 32,333 were brought to California. Three large California-based companies, Fresh Harvest, Foothill Packing and Rancho Nuevo Harvesting, accounted for 12,974 workers. One company alone, CSI Visa Processing (formerly Manpower of the Americas), says it recruits more than 25,000 workers from 12 offices in Mexico every year.

Some of the most egregious examples of recruitment abuse involve farmworkers on H-2A visas. One Texas grower, Larsen Farms, charged 100 Mexican workers as much as $1,500 each for a visa, and workers couldn’t leave the job until they’d paid their debt. In November 2021, the U.S. Attorney in Georgia filed a case against 24 growers and labor contractors for abusing H-2A workers. The complaint included two deaths, rape, kidnapping, threatening workers with guns, and growers selling workers to one another as though they were property.

While the federal government sets regulations and is responsible for enforcement, effective oversight hardly exists. According to the Cato Institute, the Department of Labor fined, on average, 2% of all employers from 2008 to 2018. Most fines averaged $237 for minor infractions, and the maximum fine was only $115,624. On average, fewer than 20 employers a year were suspended or banned from the program, an annual rate of 0.27%.

The annual cap for the recruitment of H-1B workers is set at 85,000 per year, and because these visa holders can stay in the country for multiple years, the total number of H-1B workers in the U.S. was 583,420 in 2019. Those workers are considered “high skilled,” some holding advanced degrees, and work in the technology industry, health care, and even as teachers in the school system. There is no annual cap on the L-1 visa, supposedly intended for transfers of people within a corporation into the U.S. from outside the country, and there are no education or skill requirements.

When an H-2A worker is fired for protesting, not meeting production quotas, or for no reason at all, he or she loses their visa status and must leave the country.

The record of abuse of people with these work visas is as extensive. According to a 2021 report from the Economic Policy Institute, “Thousands of skilled migrants with H-1B visas working as subcontractors at well-known corporations like Disney, FedEx, Google and others appear to have been underpaid by at least $95 million. Victims include not only the H-1B workers but also the U.S. workers who are either displaced or whose wages and working conditions degrade when employers are allowed to underpay skilled migrant workers with impunity.” The recruiters are large corporations. One, HCL Technologies, made $11 billion in revenue in 2020.

A federal bill, the H-1B and L-1 Visa Reform Act of 2022, would go after recruitment abuse in this category, especially the use of H-1B workers to replace workers in the U.S. It was introduced in March but has not passed either house. Terry FitzPatrick
, co-chair
 of the Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking, urged California legislators, “Despite ATEST advocacy at the federal level for more than 10 years on these issues, a lack of comprehensive and consistent federal oversight and regulation means temporary workers continue to be exploited and trafficked.”

AB 857 is directed specifically at farmworkers coming to the U.S. under the H-2A visa program, responding to a long history of false and misleading claims by recruiters denying farmworkers’ rights under state law. California’s workplace standards and minimum wages and benefits are governed by a series of wage orders, part of the state labor code. In recent years, farmworkers have won coverage in those orders for overtime pay and sick leave, as well as break times and other protections. State law does not exclude workers from the protection of those regulations, regardless of whether they have legal immigration status, or if they are laboring under work visas like H-2A.

Nevertheless, according to a California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation fact sheet, in a review of 280 job offers used to recruit more than 22,000 H-2A workers, 172 falsely claimed employers didn’t have to pay travel time, 144 denied workers tenants’ rights and 131 claimed that H-2A workers couldn’t receive outside visitors in company housing. Although workers are covered by sick-leave benefits, many came into legal-aid offices complaining that their employers wouldn’t pay them, even when they got the COVID-19 virus during the pandemic.

Contract work visas have been controversial since the bracero program, which brought millions of Mexican workers into U.S. fields from 1942 to 1964.

Federal H-2A program regulations require recruiters to give workers a copy of their job offer, or contract. But they’re not required to notify workers of their protections under California state law, which are much broader. AB 857 would require recruiters and employers to notify workers, in Spanish and in writing, about those protections. It also specifically requires that workers be notified about emergency disasters — critical information for farm laborers who toil in the smoke and heat during the heat dome and fire seasons, and in emergencies stemming from the pandemic. The bill, according to CRLAF, would cover 110 employers and recruiters, and more than 25,000 workers.

One right enumerated by the bill states, “An employer shall not retaliate against an employee for complaining about working conditions or for organizing collectively.” When an H-2A worker is fired for protesting, not meeting production quotas, or for no reason at all, he or she loses their visa status and must leave the country. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, recruiters then can, and do, blacklist them. The bill would prohibit this, although it is not clear how this right might be enforced.

Ultimately, however, given the abuses that can and do happen to people on work visas, both bills simply try to impose a degree of regulation and protect at least some rights. Neither bill addresses the impact of the work visa programs on the surrounding workforce. “The power that visa programs give employers, and the individuals and companies that they contract with to recruit workers, is then used to undercut wages and labor standards,” warns Costa.

Contract work visas have been controversial since the bracero program, which brought millions of Mexican workers into U.S. fields from 1942 to 1964. Farm labor advocates, including Cesar Chavez and Bert Corona, accused growers of using braceros to replace farmworkers already living in the U.S., and keeping the braceros isolated in camps where they were vulnerable to exploitation. Congress finally ended that program during the civil rights era.

One worker advocate, who for legal reasons didn’t want to be identified, concludes, “When you look at where our agricultural system is headed today, what’s growing is the worst possible alternative. We’re creating a permanent underclass of workers with fewer rights, isolated from the communities around them. While we’re trying to limit some of the worst abuses, these programs should really be abolished.”

Photos copyright David Bacon.

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