I am a NWJP staff attorney, and I am writing to share a victory in an ongoing fight to protect the wages and working conditions for farmworkers in Oregon. The victory is a result of close collaboration with farmworker communities and with the farmworker programs of Oregon’s legal aid organizations.
NWJP represents a group of local farmworkers who were illegally moved to worse jobs to open up work for H-2A foreign temporary visa workers. For a bit of background, under the H-2A program employers can apply to bring temporary, non-immigrant workers to the United States to perform work in agriculture. As part of the application process, the employer must certify to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) that there are not enough local workers to do the jobs, and also that the employment of the H-2A workers will not harm the wages and working conditions of local workers. But a lack of oversight and safeguards in the program means that US DOL approves H-2A temporary visas for employment that qualified local workers in fact want.
Also, the problem with these visas is that they are temporary. The visa workers practically speaking are only able to work for the employer that applies for the visa and cannot easily quit and find another US job. Visa workers are uniquely vulnerable to workplace exploitation because of their dependence for their visa on the employer. The exploitation of visa workers undercuts the pay and working conditions of local workers.
Our clients, a group of local farmworkers, had worked jobs in the hops for a farming operation for many years. The next year, their employer managed to convince US DOL that it did not have available workers to do the jobs, even though our clients were still available to work. The employer was given permission and started bringing in H-2A workers. As part of the H-2A program, the visa workers are guaranteed a minimum wage that is higher than the state minimum wage. That higher minimum wage is meant to ensure that employing the H-2A workers will not depress the wages of local workers. And, that higher wage must be paid to local workers who do the same work that the H-2A workers do. Our clients were not allowed to work as much as the H-2A workers and were paid less than the H-2A workers, even though they performed the same work.
NWJP, Legal Aid Services of Oregon, and Oregon Law Center filed suit to help these workers collect their unpaid wages and help battle the growing national misuse of the H-2A visa program. Defendants moved for summary judgment to try to get the case thrown out, but the court found in our clients’ favor, and now the parties are working on finalizing a settlement that will ensure that the workers are paid the wages that they should have earned, as well a penalty for late payment of wages.
The collaboration with the farmworker legal aid programs was essential to the success of the case. We had a large number of workers and a case with cutting edge legal arguments. By pooling our resources, we educated ourselves on the issues together and provided wider ranging support for the clients.
Our brave clients injected accountability into the H-2A visa program. By holding the employer responsible for paying them the higher wage rate as it promised the US DOL that it would do, our clients protected themselves, the economies of their local communities and the vulnerable H-2A workers that are often too vulnerable to retaliation to speak up about exploitation. They were able to shift the balance of economic power, even ever so slightly, to be able to experience, and to live, justice. One of our clients said this:
We must continue to protect both temporary visa holders and local workers from a visa program that is highly exploitable. We can only do that with generous contributions from our supporters. As we wrap up this year, please consider donating to help ensure our continued success in cases like this.