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Temporary farmworker protections strengthened in final Labor Department rule

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Dive Brief:

  • Temporary farmworkers in the H-2A visa program are set to receive expanded protections under a U.S. Labor Department rule released Friday, including the ability to advocate for better working conditions.
  • The rule will allow workers to decline employer-sponsored meetings aimed at discouraging labor organizing. It also allows workers to invite guests — including labor organizations — to employer-provided housing.
  • The new regulations, which also improve transportation safety and clarify what’s considered “for cause” termination, are effective June 28. However, H-2A visa applications submitted before Aug. 28 will be processed according to previous rules.

Dive Insight:

Farmworker groups say the rules create much-needed safeguards in a sector that’s rife with abuse, exploitation and human trafficking.

Investigations in fiscal year 2022 found agricultural employers using the H-2A program owed over $3.6 million in back wages. Workers have also shared stories of mistreatment — in one egregious case, a Georgia onion farm was indicted for human trafficking and inhumane labor conditions, threatening workers with firearms and forcing them to stay in cramped quarters with little food.

Under the new rules, employers cannot terminate workers “for cause” unless five conditions are met, including a requirement that workers are informed about the policy. Employers are also prohibited from holding or confiscating a worker’s passport, visa or other identification documents.

“With these new rules, the power of the federal government has sided with farm workers — both those who are born here and those from other countries — who for too long have been exploited, silenced, displaced or harmed by the H-2A program,” said Teresa Romero, president of the United Farm Workers, in a statement.

The H-2A visa program is meant to close employment gaps within the farm sector by allowing foreign workers to fill temporary agricultural jobs. Reliance on the program has increased more than sevenfold over the past 17 years, from around 48,000 positions certified in fiscal 2005 to around 371,000 in fiscal 2022.

Farm groups say the new protections add unnecessary compliance costs and complicate the H-2A visa process at a time when farmers are struggling with labor shortages and ballooning expenses.

“We wholeheartedly support clamping down on labor abuses, but this rule instead assumes all farmers are guilty until proven innocent and that’s not right,” Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, said in a statement. “With this 600-page rule, the Department of Labor has issued a stunning 3,000 pages of new regulations in just 18 months, which farmers are somehow supposed to navigate. Impossible.”

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