The Department of Agriculture (USDA) published a notice in the Federal Register that they will refuse to collect the wage data necessary to establish wage rates for H-2A agricultural guestworkers. This will have the effect of lowering wages for workers in the H-2A program, an unlimited guest worker program that research shows already certifies foreign farm workers at low wages.
Every year, the USDA conducts the Agricultural Labor Survey to determine the “Adverse Effect Wage Rate,” which is really just the average wage earned by farm workers across the country. The department uses this number to determine how much H-2A guestworkers earn.
In 2019, the results of the Agricultural Labor Survey raised the wages paid to H-2A workers by an average of 6 percent. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, a former Georgia governor, made the decision to use other methods of data collection which may keep future H-2A wage costs down for employers. The American Farm Bureau Federation, the nation’s most powerful agricultural lobbying group, applauded the move as a cost-saving measure for farmers.
Other groups slammed the decision. The United Farm Workers (UFW) union released a statement accusing the USDA of “cutting their wages in the middle of a pandemic that is afflicting them at alarming and increasing rates. Farm workers are especially vulnerable to the virus because they must often live, commute and labor in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions.”
Jessica Vaughan of the Center for Immigration Studies told Breitbart News that “Trump’s agriculture officials are practically lobbyists for the farm employers, always looking to implement policies that lower the cost of farm labor, especially by keeping the pipeline of farm visa workers as large as possible.”
This move by Secretary Perdue’s USDA will almost certainly keep wages low for H-2A workers, making the program even cheaper to use by employers. Although President Trump’s administration has taken some strides in reforming guest worker visa programs, notably the H-1B, they have done very little to reform the H-2A program in any meaningful way.
This move by the USDA is nothing short of a giveaway to big agricultural interests whose former lobbyists now staff the department. Instead of reforming the program’s wage calculations or investing in labor-saving automation technology, the USDA chose to quietly force through this decision which will simply continue the H-2A status quo as an unlimited, cheap, foreign guest worker program.