The federal H-2A program that allows temporary agricultural guest workers from other countries has grown dramatically in recent years. Approximately 80 percent of all Florida citrus is harvested by H-2A workers, says Carlene Thissen, coordinator for farm labor supervisor training at the Southwest Florida Research and Education Center in Immokalee. She says the number of H-2A workers in Florida citrus has quadrupled over the past five to 10 years.
Thissen reports on a survey of growers and workers involved in the H-2A program. “What we’re trying to basically find out is how is the program working and are people happy with it, and how it may be changed … We’re hoping the study — it’s a pretty major study — will be used by people who are going to be in a position to maybe make changes to the program.”
She discusses growers’ perspectives of the H-2A program, starting with the pros. “They have a legal workforce,” Thissen says. “So they don’t have to worry about Immigration (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) coming to their groves and pulling their workers the next day. And they have a highly productive workforce, because with H-2A you can pick your most productive workers and then bring them back year after year. And the other thing is, the growers can go to bed and be comfortable that their crops are going to get picked in the morning.”
Thissen discusses the cons of the H-2A program, from the grower view: “It’s like having a target on your back. They (federal officials) know you’re there. You have to send in reports … It costs roughly $2,000 a worker to bring them up here … They (growers) have to pay them a minimum of $11.12 an hour.”
“For the workers, it’s a legal way to get up here,” Thissen says, addressing the primary H-2A benefits. The workers also get transportation paid to Florida and the worksite, housing, and food if the housing doesn’t have a kitchen. On the downside, “The worker advocates worry about the fact that they’re away from home for too long (up to about 10 months),” Thissen says.
However, “The growers are telling us that they have people down in Mexico that are building new houses (with their H-2A earnings),” Thissen says. She tells a story from one grower who goes to Mexico to get his own workers. “One of the (Mexican) guys who had been working for a few years said, ‘Hey, I want to take you and show you my new house; I have you to thank for that,” Thissen reports.
Thissen discussed the H-2A program at the recent meeting of the Florida State Horticultural Society in Tampa.
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