By Jason Schaefer
The Associated Press
If you’re one of the people who raise a fuss saying foreign workers drain the American economy and job pool; if you adamantly preach the merits of the “only buy American” philosophy; or you firmly support closed borders, it may be time to re-assess where you purchase your produce.
Or re-evaluate your political platform.
According to South Georgia farmers and the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, most produce-harvesting jobs go to Mexican nationals and other foreign workers simply because Americans don’t want to do the job, or can’t.
“They think they can, but when they find out what it is, that they have to keep up with the Mexicans, they decide they can’t,” said a source from Patrick Farms wishing not to be named. “They think they’re just going to go out and cut what they’re going to cut. They don’t realize they’re going to need to meet a quota.”
Patrick Farms' American hires usually see an all-call advertisement for farm hands in newspaper classifieds, start work because of the $9.39 per-hour pay rate, and quit before the end of the season, according to the source.
“If it rains, they won’t work in the rain — they said it was cold and wet and go back to the bus — but the Mexicans will,” said the source.
Charles Hall, GFVGA executive director, said most Americans quit before the end of the day.
“More often than not, the American worker will quit between four to eight hours of being hired,” Hall said. “The growers would rather work with U.S. citizens; the problem is our citizens don’t have the stamina or ability to do the work.”
The hardiness of a group of typical farm workers is comparable to a U.S. football team, Hall said. The job requires working in the heat throughout the day, enduring temperatures that remain near, at or above 100 degrees, stooping, bending, carrying heavy loads and standing all day.
“Most U.S. citizens can’t withstand that physical exertion,” Hall said.
“And people don’t understand why unemployed workers can’t go out and do this work.”
Though the harvest season only lasts between six and nine weeks, even American workers who train to get in shape for those periods would have to wait another year before the season began again, according to Hall, training for the work during the off-season.
Foreign workers, who migrate to the Deep South and other areas from Mexico as well as other countries and are used to farm work in their home
countries, readily seek the opportunity to receive pay that is greater than what they would earn at home.
“Most of these people don’t even want citizenship,” local tobacco farmer Fred Wetherington said. “They just want to work two or three years and make money on a farm. They make in a year here what it takes five to 10 years to make at home. They want to build up a nest egg, build a house, buy some land, and they’ll be set because of the time they spent working in the U.S.”
Local help would never suffice to bring in Wetherington’s harvest, he said. More than half of his labor force is sourced from a foreign country.
The U.S. Department of Labor classifies these workers as legal aliens carrying an H-2A temporary work visa. The H-2A program allows farmers who display a need for foreign workers to appeal to the government to hire beyond U.S. borders, provided they have sought to fill the jobs with domestic laborers first, according to the DOL website.
On behalf of the farmers requesting the labor, the DOL advertises for domestic farm workers in classified newspaper ads first, prior to asking the consulate to send the workers. When the H-2A program first began in 2011, farmers were not allowed to require previous experience from domestic workers, Hall said.
This fed the problem originally initiated by Georgia House Bill 87, which cracked down on illegal immigrants in the South, eliminating approximately 40 percent of the farm labor work force in 2011, Hall said.
“Before (HB-87), migrant workers would come out of Florida, harvest crops in Georgia, then move up the East Coast and harvest throughout the season,” Hall said. “But when it was passed, there were rumors of people showing their papers and then being deported. So the harvest crews would move through Georgia and wouldn’t stop. There were fields of cucumbers rotting.”
The Georgia Department of Labor conducted an investigation of the prevailing practices of Southern growers from 2011 to 2012, which found that 88 percent of Georgia farmers said they required previous experience for all laborers. In reaction to these findings, the law was amended, allowing farmers to request at least a year of experience from its applicants, foreign and domestic.
The listing of prior experience allows farmers to hire Americans more likely to stay on the job throughout the harvest season, according to the GFVGA, but the amended H-2A program is still not without its hiccups.
Under an H-2A contract, growers must provide free housing, transportation for the workers from their home country to the farm, a minimum wage of $9.39 per hour and a contract of less than a year. Their wages are taxed the same rate as Americans, but they are free to take their earnings back home without further duty.
The DOL works with the Mexican Consulate to find and place eligible workers interested in foreign labor and to provide them with American visas. Farmers are required to formally request foreign labor 75 to 90 days in advance, which creates difficulties for farmers working in a narrow time frame, Hall said.
“You could have a crop ready to harvest in three weeks and all of a sudden, there’s a hailstorm,” Hall said. “You don’t have any idea how you’re crop’s going to be. It’s extremely complicated. Most growers have people on their staff who only handle paperwork from the Department of Labor — the process of getting workers out of Mexico and through the consulate in the time limitations.”
Wetherington, and likely other non-industrial farmers with smaller holdings, seek out workers already documented and present in the South to save themselves the headache of attempting the perfect timing of paperwork, he said.
“I haven’t messed with (the paperwork) lately,” Wetherington said. “I just use some of the guys that other big produce farmers bring in for the spring and fall crops. Our season’s only about eight weeks, so I sort of just fit them in.”
Wetherington has had a degree of success mechanizing the harvest on his farm, but has still not solved the problem completely. Some parts of the process simply can’t be handled by a machine, he said.
“We work as much local help as we can, but that would never suffice as far as what we need during the harvest season,” Wetherington said. “Where 10 to 15 years ago, we had 200 workers, now we use about 30 to 40.”
While workers contracted through the H-2A program are guaranteed legal aliens, H-2A laborers still only represent 10 to 15 percent of the total workforce in South Georgia, Hall said. The remaining 85 to 90 percent are either Americans or undocumented aliens.
The average consumer is ignorant to most of the effects of immigration policy reform on the produce market, and doesn’t realize where their food comes from, Hall said.
“As a consumer, we’re used to going in and buying blueberries 12 months out of the year, but they’re only grown in the U.S. six months out of the year,” Hall said. “The produce industry is the closest to a free market industry as possible. If we have too many tomatoes, our prices are dead.”
Most consumers vocal on the immigration issue see undocumented workers as a drain on the economy, Hall said.
“That may be true,” he said. “But they’re doing labor-type jobs that we can’t get done unless we have a foreign worker do it — dishwashers, maids, housekeeping in nursing homes. We don’t raise our kids to be a cucumber picker; we raise them to go to college.
“We have to have these jobs to have the quality of life that we have. We have to have a way to bring in the foreign workers willing to do this work.”
Valdosta Tea Party President Nolen Cox voiced his opinion on the issue of undocumented workers, saying that Americans are responsible for their medical expenses and the education of their children.
“I have no problem with them coming here documented,” Cox said. “Unless they’re using social services without paying. It’s a simple economic situation. You can’t have open borders and offer benefits without some kind of controls. If they’re legal, I see no problem with it.”