WASHINGTON — While more than one in 10 North Carolinians are without work, thousands of farm jobs that pay more than the minimum wage are being filled by immigrants, most of them from Mexico, through a legal, temporary work program.
This year alone, North Carolina farmers were granted permission to hire 8,547 temporary foreign agricultural workers, by far the most of any state. This represents more than 10 percent of the state's agricultural workforce, according to the Employment Security Commission of North Carolina.
The jobs, which pay $9.30 to $9.59 an hour, must first be advertised to Americans before foreign workers with H-2A visas — the name of the temporary agriculture work permits — can be hired to fill them. This has sparked a debate as to why these jobs are being filled by temporary immigrant workers and not U.S. citizens during a period of severe unemployment.
Farmers and industry advocates say Americans simply don't want these jobs because of the laborious and seasonal nature of the work.
"I don't care if you pay them $20 an hour, you are not going to get them out here to do this type of work," Wilson Daughtry, a vegetable farmer in Engelhard, N.C., said of U.S. workers. "You might get them out here for a day or two. But they are not going to be out here day after day, month after month, to perform the work."
Farm worker advocate groups say, however, that some employers seek to import labor because the structure of the H-2A program and the immigrants' opportunity to earn more than in their native countries make the foreign workers inclined to endure tougher work conditions. Moreover, the program allows farmers to avoid paying more for domestic workers in the open market.
"I don't buy the argument that I've heard many growers make that Americans are just not prepared to do this kind of work," said Mary Bauer, the legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center and the author of "Close to Slavery," a report alleging abuses of the H-2A program. "For centuries, Americans have performed agricultural labor."
"Many workers do not want these jobs at these wages and on these terms," Bauer added. But "if you can't find workers at the wage you want to pay, then lo and behold there's this program you can use that allows you to go find people from another country who will desperately want to make a job at $7 or $8 an hour."
In June, Legal Aid of North Carolina filed a lawsuit on behalf of 11 U.S. farm workers alleging that Daughtry and his wife discriminated against the Americans to push them out so the positions could be filled with H-2A workers.
However, Daughtry, 49, said the American workers were held to the same standards as his other employees. The workers didn't have an accurate understanding of how hard the work was before they began and so they quit, according to Daughtry.
"They were treated the same way as everybody else in the field, and for whatever reason they couldn't do the work or chose not to do the work," he said. "Growing up as a young person, I was expected to do the same type of work. There is nothing unusual of what these people are doing."
Unemployment statistics from the state don't point to Americans flocking to these jobs.
From July 2010 through this past June, the Employment Security Commission of North Carolina advertised 9,050 openings that would go to H-2A workers if Americans didn't fill them. Only 752 U.S. worker referrals were made. The commission doesn't track whether the workers were hired.
"This is a misconception, to say that farmers prefer foreign workers," said Lee Wicker, a tobacco farmer and the deputy director of North Carolina Growers Association. "We don't. We just want workers that are going to come and stay and help us" plant, grow and harvest crops.
Needing to fill thousands of vacant positions, farmers say, they're faced with a dilemma: Use the legal channel of the H-2A program or resort to illegal workers.
"We stepped up to try and do the right thing," Daughtry said of entering the H-2A program four years ago. He noted that the H-2A program requires him to provide transportation, housing and the cost of visas for the legal migrants, which drives up his costs while competitors who hire illegal workers don't incur the same expenses.
The North Carolina Growers Association is largely responsible for the proliferation of H-2A visas in North Carolina. From July 2010 through June, the association was certified to use about 7,000 foreign workers.
Typically, foreign workers contract directly with one farmer for the growing season, and can work only for that employer. But farms that are members of the North Carolina Growers Association pool resources, splitting the fixed costs of employing H-2A workers while sharing the labor force, because different crops require assistance at different times.
"We can move workers from farm to farm; that maximizes the efficiency for the growers to participate," Wicker said. "The other big thing that it does, it allows NCGA and our farmers to maximize the employment opportunity for these workers."
The association exceeded the federal program requirements in 2007 when it signed a collective bargaining agreement with the AFL-CIO's Farm Labor Organizing Committee to cover the legal migrants, according to its website.
Beyond the guarantees of the H-2A program, the agreement provides injury pay and a formal grievance resolution process.
"These guys are not chained and shackled at night," Wicker said. "They can come and go as they please. The only thing that keeps them here is that they want these jobs."
(The Medill News Service is a Washington program of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.)
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