Temporary farmworkers get more protections against retaliation and other abuses under new rule

SANTA ROSA, Calif. — Temporary farmworkers will have more legal protections against employer retaliation, unsafe working conditions, illegal recruitment practices and other abuses under a Labor Department rule announced Friday.

Each year about 300,000 immigrants, mostly from Mexico, take seasonal jobs on U.S. farms. The new rule, which takes effect June 28, will target abuses experienced by workers under the H-2A program that undermine fair labor standards for all farmworkers.

Labor Secretary Julie Su said the rule aims to “breathe life” into existing worker protections.

“Our rule is meant to give H2-A workers more ability to advocate for themselves, to speak up when they experience labor law abuses,” Su said at a vineyard in Santa Rosa, north of San Francisco.

California has a vast agricultural industry, growing over a third of the country’s vegetables and nearly three-quarters of the country’s fruits and nuts and attracting a large number of farmworkers.

The Biden administration announced a proposal for the new rule in September, saying it would boost safety requirements on farms and raise transparency around how such workers are recruited, in order to combat human trafficking.

The Labor Department is already required to ensure that the H-2A program doesn’t undercut the wages or working conditions of Americans who take similar jobs. Employers are required to pay minimum U.S. wages or higher, depending on the region. They are also required to provide their temporary workers with housing and transportation.

Reports of overcrowded farm vehicles and fatalities have increased as the number of guest farmworkers has risen, officials say. Transportation accidents are a leading cause of death for farmworkers.

The new rule will require farmers who employ H-2A workers to make sure the vans and buses they use to transport workers long distances — and that are often driven by tired workers — have seatbelts for all passengers.

The new rule also protects temporary agricultural workers from employer retaliation if they meet with legal service providers or union representatives at the housing provided by the employer. It also protects them from retaliation when they decline to attend “captive audience” meetings organized by their employer.

And in a step intended to counter human trafficking, employers would be required to identify anyone recruiting workers on their behalf in the U.S. or foreign countries and to provide copies of any agreements they have with those recruiters.

Teresa Romero, president of United Farm Workers, said the rule will help prevent employers’ abuse because those found in violation of the new rule will not be allowed to use the program again. She said a requirement for employers to disclose contracts with their agents will make it easier to identify wrongdoers.

“In many cases, employers take their documents and they have to pay a debt that they incurred from recruiters that unfortunately are not ethical and charge tremendous amounts of money for the workers,” Romero said.

The proposal drew nearly 13,000 public comments, including some from industry groups that said new regulatory requirements were excessive. Ted Sester, who owns a wholesale nursery in Gresham, Oregon, said it was “full of heavy-handed enforcement and regulatory overreach.”

The Northwest Horticultural Council said the rule “makes the already complex H-2A program far more difficult for growers to navigate, while increasing the risk that growers may lose access to the program without the ability to exercise proper due process — a death knell for Pacific Northwest tree fruit growers utilizing the program.”

Labor advocates strongly applauded the rule.

“Agricultural guest workers are some of the most vulnerable workers in America, but this rule will empower H-2A workers to stand up to some of the biggest challenges they face,” the Congressional Labor Caucus, made up of about 100 pro-union members of Congress, said Friday.

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