US: Hispanic worker program raises questions

By Rick Laney

A work program widely praised by local farmers and managed by the U.S. Government is under fire from a Blount County resident who says it keeps Americans from getting jobs.

Sabrina Steele is accustomed to farm work. She and her husband have a farm in southern Blount County and she says she can work a farm like anyone.
“I know what it’s like to throw 75-pound hay bales all afternoon in 95-degree weather,” Steele said. “I’ve done it.”

Even with extensive background in agriculture and farming, Steele – a 1998 Heritage High School graduate – has not been able to find summer work this year to supplement her family’s income. She blames this on a program called H-2A that brings Hispanic laborers to the United States to work for farmers.

Steele says she has been working through the Tennessee Career Centers in Vonore and Alcoa looking for work. Even though farm jobs have been posted at the career centers, which are operated by the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development, Steele claims none of the farmers she talked to wanted to hire her because they prefer to bring Mexican workers in under the H-2A program.

The H-2A program has only existed since 1986, but it is an offshoot of the H-2 and Bracero programs that date back to the 1940s, according to the U.S. State Department. The program is now managed by the U.S. Department of Labor, the U.S. Department of State and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

The H-2A program allows farmers to bring in foreign workers to perform agricultural work when domestic workers are not available. The U.S. State Department issues visas to the workers and the farmers are responsible for transporting them to their farms and housing them while they are in the United States.

The H-2A workers receive $9.13 per hour and are covered by workers compensation but get no benefits and are not eligible for overtime pay even if they work more than 40 hours in a week, which they often do, according to farmers who use them.

Albert Coning, a long-time Blount County farmer, credits the H-2A program with keeping his farm in business. According to Coning, he was ready to quit farming altogether when his wife discovered the H-2A program six years ago.

“We were having a terrible time getting people to come here and work,” Coning, who is 65 years old, said. “One summer we needed three or four extra workers and we went through 25 people.

“They all took the job, but they only lasted anywhere from two hours to four days – that was it,” he said. “We didn’t know from day-to-day if we would be able to work because we didn’t know if our help would show up.

“They all said they needed to work and wanted to work, but something else always came up. I told my wife I couldn’t do it any more – I wouldn’t do it any more.”Not cheap
Coning, who farms between 400 and 500 acres each year, says many people believe the Hispanics provide “cheap labor,” but he says that is far from the truth. After paying for transportation to and from the Mexican border, providing them with housing and transportation while they are here and paying the required $9.13 hourly rate, Coning said is not about saving money.

“Anyone who thinks the Mexican workers are cheap doesn’t understand,” Coning said. “We don’t use them because they’re cheap – we use them because they’re dependable.”

When farmers decide to use H-2A workers, they go through a private agency to obtain the employees. Two agencies that provide a large number of H-2A workers for East Tennessee farmers are the Kentucky Tennessee Labor Corporation in Lexington, Ky., and International Labor Management Consultant (ILMC) of Vass, N.C.
Tish Sowards owns and managers Kentucky Tennessee Labor Corporation. Her agency processes the paperwork associated with the H-2A program for the farmers for a fee. Local farmers say the agency fee is between $300 and $600 per alien worker.

“American farmers are frustrated,” Sowards said. “They’ve been frustrated for years by American workers who takes jobs and then quit after a few days.

“This is the only way our farmers can know that they’ll have a crew the next morning when they wake up,” she said. “For the one or two people you find who know what they’re getting into with farm work – and are probably able to handle it – you’ll go through 20 or 25 employees who say they want the job and then disappear.”

Sowards said she believes the government has made it too easy for people in the United States to qualify for money and government programs without having to work.Little Comfort
Although Steele says she understands why American farmers have turned to alien workers, it provides little comfort for her current situation.

“With our economy the way it is now, it just doesn’t seem right for me to go to a place like the Tennessee Career Center for employment only to find out that I can’t get on,” Steel said. “I don’t like feeling like I don’t have the same opportunity to work and support my family that they have.

“When I go to buy produce and I pay taxes on it, it just isn’t fair that the person growing that produce doesn’t want to pay American workers who need jobs,” she said. “If (the farmers) had to pay them overtime and provide benefits for those workers, it would be different. Your body can’t work like that – all bent over for 14 hours a day – every day of the week for 10 or 12 hours each day.

“It’s just like child labor to me. These foreign workers are people too – and it’s scary to think that we have Blount County employers who don’t see their employees as people.”

Jim Howell, the manager of the Tennessee Career Center in Alcoa, said there are currently no farm jobs posted at the Alcoa Career Center.

“We’ve had a few farm jobs posted,” Howell said, “but there are none right now.

“Under the H-2A program, the farms have to make an attempt to hire local workers. We post the jobs when the farms have them, but it’s entirely up to the farmers as to who they hire and who they don’t hire.”

Some local farmers who did not wish to be named in this article said they hire any and all local workers who apply for jobs at their farm even though they also use H-2A workers. The same farmers indicated that they were rarely able to keep domestic workers for an entire season and relied most heavily on the H-2A workers.

Many of the H-2A workers who end up in Blount County come from regions of Mexico where the average weekly pay is $10 to $15, according to the farmers who hire them. While employed by Blount County farmers, those same workers earn nearly that much per hour.

In 2006, the United States approved visas for 56,183 foreign H-2A workers to come to America and work on 5,448 farms. In 2007, that number climbed to 78,089 alien workers coming here to work on 6,212 farms according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Coning says he is excited for his Mexican workers to arrive around April 15. Coning and his wife have special dinners for them, accompany them to church and fly them back home rather than making them ride the bus when the season is over. In the meantime, Steele is still looking for work on a local farm.

“If it wasn’t for the H-2A program, we would be out of farming,” Coning said. “Most farmers in this area will tell you the same thing.

“We can’t get the people here to do the work – and we’d be out of business without these Mexican workers.” (The Daily Times)

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3 Responses to “US: Hispanic worker program raises questions”


  1. 1 Mike October 3, 2008 at 10:27 am

    It makes me sick to read this article and realize what is happening to this country. The farmers are totally clueless as to why this situation has developed. After decades of opening up the borders and pushing Americans out of the farming industry it is no wonder you can’t find workers here anymore. Most people who were serious about working on a farm eventually gave up because wages were illegally lowered and American farmers began discriminating against their own people! The situation is now at the point where farmers are getting older and older with no newer generations replacing them. You should be very happy because your greed is what caused the problem in the first place. Yes I am talking to you American farmers. I hope you do go out of business because you don’t deserve to be prosperous when you are oppressing the American workforce.

    I have had the same problem looking for work on farms. Your claims of no reliable workers are false. All you have to do is search for something like sustainable farm internships on Google and you will see there is a huge pool of young people willing to work. The only problem is none of these farms want to pay a decent wage. I have been scouring the internet and I know for a fact there are a huge number of American citizens looking for jobs under categories such as “farm hand” or “ranch hand”. I found a bulliten board posting with hundreds of experienced people looking for farm jobs. The highest I have found is around a thousand dollars a month with food and housing. That adds up to about $6.25 and hour or less if you have five weeks in a month. Now to come on here and see those workers from Mexico are making $9.13 and hour! Let me tell you, when I applied to work on a farm last season for $6.25 and hour I had to compete with others who had also applied. I got the job and when I arrived I met ten other American workers who had been there for months before me. Many of them were returning workers from the previous season. All of them worked hard and did not quite. So don’t blame the American workforce because you don’t know how to properly screen you employees.

    Also since I came back I have been looking for more work in places such as Florida since the picking season has just begun there. But guess what? No available work! Why? Because of these traitor farmers who have turned against their own people. Or if their was I did not qualify for such things as “must be able to speak Spanish”. Speak Spanish? This is America not Mexico!

    The real reason why you want Mexican workers is because you know that you can take advantage of them and they will not say anything. You give them unreasonably long hours and expect them to work at an inhuman pace instead of them setting their own pace. That is why so many of them are dying of heat stroke in California. You do not want a decent day’s work for a decent wage. I don’t blame the Mexican one bit. If I was in their position I would do the same thing. But they are being oppressed just as the Americans are.

    Don’t worry though. You will all get exactly what you want. You don’t realize that you are digging you own grave. You are bringing your own economy down. We are at a point now of total economic meltdown. Your irresponsible actions as well as those of others will continue to weaken the dollar. Welcome to NAFTA! Or should I say you new country. Can you say Amero? Look it up!

    I am at the point now where I am looking for work in other countries. I have been driven from my own home because of these greedy practices. You are all in for a very rude awakening.

  2. 2 The City On a Shining Hill February 24, 2011 at 6:30 pm

    Yes, Jesus said in Luke 12 that the worker is worthy of his or her hire, and should be paid a fair wage in exchange for an honest days work, and in Ephesians 6 the employers should treat their workers well.

    Somehow, business owners will always maximize profits at the expense of their workers. It is an age old problem. Our nation was sadly torn apart by greedy wealthy plantation owners in the South, bringing on the terrible Civil War, who hired poor African slaves torn from their homelands and families and familiar culture, to work the cotton fields for a pittance, rather than hire locals and pay a decent wage, enriching the owners.

    “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil”

    It seems America has chased the love of filthy lucre from its beginnings, and that love is now bringing it down, as all great civilizations before it. History always repeats itself, and man’s nature never changes. Very sad.

    “That which a man sows, he will also reap”-The Apostle Paul


  1. 1 Hoteles Guatemala » Blog Archive » US: Hispanic worker program raises questions Trackback on April 12, 2008 at 4:37 am

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