The number of applications for agricultural worker visas in the State of Washington is rapidly increasing. H-2A applications have surged in the state by more than 1,000 percent in the past ten years. Farmers claim this is because there isn’t enough labor in the United States to supply their farms.
“The American consumer has to answer one question,” said farm owner Rob Valicoff, according to UPI. “Do you want foreign workers producing your food in America, or do you want food that’s just foreign?”
Mr. Valicoff ignores one important question that he and other farmers should be answering. Why are Americans declining to work on your farms?
Americans look for jobs that will pay them enough to support themselves and their families. According to the MIT Living Wage Calculator, Washington has one of the highest costs of living outside of the Northeast. Adults need to earn at least $17 per hour to support the average family. However, farmhands make much less than that in the state.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average crop farmhand in Washington earns $29,000 annually. That is about $13.94 per hour, which isn’t nearly enough to support a family. However, because this non-market wage is still much better than what most foreign workers can earn in their home countries, they are eager to accept these wages. Furthermore, by law, H-2A workers must work for the farmers who brought them to the U.S. or face deportation.
That means that, unlike American laborers, foreign farm employees can’t compete in the free market. As a result, farmers using the H-2A program have a captive pool of laborers. They never have to worry about losing foreign workers to an employer who pays more or offers better conditions. And they don’t have to worry about paying a competitive wage in order to retain workers.
The result is that importing foreign farm labor undercuts the wage market in the agricultural sector. Farmhands in the Evergreen State earn well-below the living wage because of this, and that doesn’t appear to be changing any time soon. Why would farmers stop using a program that subsidizes wages by furnishing cheap, imported labor? Farmers claim they can’t find enough American workers, but the real problem is that they simply don’t want to pay a fair market wage. Foreign agricultural workers allow farmers to fill their coffers at the expense of potential American labor.