H-2A guestworkers help keep ag viable

Antonio de Jesus Bailon picks Gala apples at Griggs Orchards, Orondo, Wash. A federal judge has set a Jan. 28 hearing on a preliminary injunction to stop large increases in the minimum wages paid to foreign guestworkers.

Two quotes stood out in last week’s story about an H-2A guestworker we featured on the front page. One was “I do it because we need the money.”

The speaker was Antonio de Jesus Bailon. He was one of more than 20,000 H-2A visa guestworkers hired by orchards in Washington state — and 200,000 hired this year by farmers across the U.S. — to harvest and tend crops.

For many Americans, it’s hard to imagine life in rural Mexico, where Bailon grew up. He and his family live on about $10.50 a day he earns picking peas and corn near Francisco Javier Mina, a tiny village halfway between the U.S. border and Mexico city. Compared to the minimum wage he receives as an H-2A worker — $14.12 per hour — it is barely enough for him, his wife and their three children to get by.

The opportunity to come to Washington state to work in the orchards for six months each year is a boon to Bailon and his family. His transportation expenses between Mexico and the U.S. and housing are paid by Griggs Orchards of Orondo, Wash. The only thing he needs to buy is food.

That allows him to bring home about $18,000 in November, when the apple harvest winds down. With that windfall, he is building a house for his family and clothes for his wife and children.

Much is said these days about foreign guestworkers. One comment, that they are “taking” jobs from Americans, is untrue. The 104 H-2A guestworkers Griggs Orchards hired this year are less than half the total crew of 245 it needed, but without them the crops would never be harvested.

Which brings us to a second noteworthy quote in that story:

“There’s not a snowball’s chance in hell we would get our crops picked without it,” John Griggs, co-owner of Griggs Orchards, said of the federal H-2A program.

Even before hiring H-2A guestworkers, employers have to advertise locally for pickers. With the help of organizations such as WAFLA, which recruits guestworkers in Mexico, they are able to fill their ranks. All workers, not just the guestworkers, are paid the federally mandated minimum wage, and those domestic workers who live beyond a 50-mile radius must be offered housing.

The idea that Americans are lining up to harvest tree fruit, row crops and work in processing plants is a fantasy that seems to be perpetuated by politicians and others. During their busy season, nearly every farm and processing plant posts “Help Wanted” signs advertising good-paying jobs only to get a handful of applicants.

Bailon, the guestworker from Mexico, makes about $200 a day picking apples. That comes out to $20 an hour, yet only a limited number of domestic workers apply for such jobs. We have editorialized at length that Congress should address the need for a legal and adequate workforce, not just for agriculture but for other industries. So far, Congress has failed to act in a meaningful way. Instead of streamlining the H-2A program to improve it, congressional proposals have sought to limit the number of guestworkers, reduce the pay and take away housing and transportation.

Such backward thinking will ultimately hurt both the people who do the hard work that Americans won’t and the farmers and others who depend on them.

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