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Labor Abuses in Our H-2A Visa Program: Approximating Labor Trafficking

“Human Trafficking is a crime involving the exploitation of someone for the purposes of compelled labor or a commercial sex act through the use of force, fraud, or coercion.” ( U.S. Department of Labor).

The U.S. agricultural production is 80% dependent upon the H-2A Visa program that provides farmers and ranchers access to foreign workers. Recent news articles have shined a light on the shortcomings of this program. Because the consumers benefit from this program, we need to be aware of the human toll that is extracted for the foods we enjoy.

According to the report by Sam Tabachnik, Denver Post Sept 19, 2023(articleforsubscribers), a Colorado grower, Star Farms, in Brighton has repeatedly been flagged for numerous violations as far back as 2006 including lack of access to clean water, lack of bathrooms, wage theft (back wages owned $209,000), etc. Star Farms is again being investigated by the federal labor department (U.S.DOL). The workers’ lawyers are asking for the CO AG and the CDLE to open probes. Despite the continued infractions, the same federal agency authorizes Star Farms’ owner, Palumbo, to contract H-2A workers. The DP article states that in 2006, for 5 violations of the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act and OSHA violations, the DOL fined Star Farms $6,800. In 2010 Star was fined $12,200 for owing $123,330 in back wages.

Accessible article with story on Business & Human Rights Resource Centre.

Because the H-2A visa only allows workers to work for one employer, it makes the workers easy victims of labor abuses, because, unlike other workers, they cannot move to another employer if they are suffering abuses. And because they fear getting “black-balled” for speaking up about abuses, they are unlikely to complain to the employers.

Palumbo sells his various vegetables to the same stores most of us shop in: Kroger, Safeway, etc. He had 65 workers on his payroll this past July when he filed for Chapter 12 (bankruptcy).

Workers interviewed say that, despite the various agencies’ awareness of Palumbo’s abuses, nothing has changed: backrooms are still filthy, there is no clean drinking water, and workers still aren’t paid. A spokesperson for the U.S.DOL said that there is an on-going investigation into Star Farms but declined to elaborate.

The Star Farms case represents one where the U.S.DOL and the CDLE are involved. But are other abuses likely to be investigated? The answer is no.

According to a report by the Economic Policy Institute:

  • Since 2000, investigations by the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division have plummeted by over 60%—from a high of 2,431 to only 879 in fiscal year 2022.

  • With a mere 810 investigators to protect all 165 million workers in the U.S., the Wage and Hour Division currently investigates fewer than 1% of farm employers per year.

  • From 2000 to 2022, violations of the H-2A visa program—which allows U.S. employers to hire migrant farmworkers for seasonal jobs—accounted for roughly half of back wages and civil money penalties owed by farm employers. These violations accounted for nearly three-fourths during the Biden administration (

If we feel that these abuses need to end, we must contact our congressional representatives and insist that our rules and laws be followed. If the H-2A visa system is structurally flawed due to the power imbalance between workers and employers, while our foods production is dependent on foreign non-immigrant labor, it is time for us to enact comprehensive immigration reform.

Tom Acker, PhD

Founding member of WSAT and Board President Hispanic Affairs Project

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