Special Report: The Harvest
EDINBURG – Most of the food we eat is planted by hand.
Diane Soto, a migrant farm worker, has spent 10 years working in the agriculture business.
“I have a daughter and a son, and my daughter is working here too. It was my dad, it was me and my sons. It’s like a family business, yup,” said Soto.
Soto trained 70 workers from the United States and other countries; some U.S. workers say they can’t get jobs.
“Some of the newer kinds of cases that we started seeing a large uptick in, in the last few years have to do with U.S. workers, Texans being displaced by guest workers,” explained Daniela Dwyer, a lawyer with the Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid.
Dwyer says some of these cases and, or complaints are workers from the Rio Grande Valley.
“We're probably handling two to three times as many complaints as we have before; that means upwards of 10 to 20 complaints per year,” she said.
H-2A workers can only get a job when the supply of U.S. workers is too low.
Those are the rules, according to the Department of Labor.
“Families who typically who've done farm work for many years for an employer or in a particular type of crop, like specialists in onions, or specialists in melons, or apples, are being told that they're not going to be hired anymore, because those farms or agricultural businesses have decided to hire foreign guest workers in H-2A program,” Dwyer explained.
Soto’s employer, grower Mike Helle, believes differently.
“It’s a fact, people, that we have a labor shortage,” said Helle.
Helle, who’s farmed for 32 years, explained when an H-2A or foreign worker is hired, the employer must advertise about a month in advance to give Americans a chance to apply for the job.
“The youngest people don’t care to work on the farm, they go to the large cities, in the factories or the tourist spots they get paid more, working conditions are cooler – you name it,” said Helle.
Soto says she does hire U.S. employees, claiming they only stay for a short time.
“They don’t, don’t show up that much. They come work for two or three days and they don’t come back,” said Soto.
Dwyer believes hiring more H-2A workers can lead to more abuse.
“More and more of those jobs are going to H-2A and the H-2A workers are being forced to work faster and faster and pick more and more of buckets in order to keep their jobs,” said Dwyer.
Dwyer and her team went to Michigan to see the conditions of the migrant labor facilities.
Photos from their trip revealed refrigerators outside with loose electrical wiring and trash next to the living areas.
“Many of the camps people live in that are camps literally hidden in trees and they should be inspected by some agency, but they're often not. Especially if they are unlicensed. And people may not know they have these farmers in their neighborhoods at all,” explained Dwyer.
The pictures shown to us are only of ones attorneys took, so we don’t know what we’re not seeing in the pictures.
Helle says he went to some farms across the country too. He claims most workers in the northern states are part of the H-2A program; he said they also have pictures of their job sites.
“It’s very hard for somebody to take advantage of people and I don't know how that can happen,” said Helle. “What I learned this year, I don't know about other areas, but it’s impossible because the Department of Labor came out and checked us, or checked the crew leaders. I had to give them GPS coordinates where my fields were. They knew everything that was going on.”
In Ohio, Patricia Gomez starts her day early.
“We’re bunching onions mostly from seven in the morning to seven in the evening,” she said.
Gomez, her mom, dad and the rest of the family are migrant workers from San Benito.
She’s worked the fields for 23 years.
“Last year, we were getting paid roughly $8.15 I think. And they raised it up a lot for this year. We’re getting paid $13.25. We’re working about 60-70 hours,” said Gomez.
From June to October, she calls an apartment home with her five children.
“I’m a citizen and I’m working comfortably there and the company is still hiring. I mean, I don’t think the Mexican people come in and get our jobs or anything like that,” Gomez says.
Dwyer helped Ramiro Salinas and two other Valley migrant workers get a settlement in 2017.
The complaint explains a Colorado agricultural company preferred foreign workers over U.S. workers.
CHANNEL 5 NEWS spoke with Salinas while he was working in Ohio about the case.
“No, I didn't get that job. For that one I only sent documents, but they didn't take us because we didn't speak English,” said Salinas.
Back on Helle’s farm, workers are grateful for the opportunity to work.
Helle believes the H-2A program is strict enough. It will keep abuse down and employees in his fields.
“We got a lot of money in our crop and we have to get it harvested. If we don't or we can't make any money. We'll go under,” he said.
Soto says the program protects her and fellow American workers.
“I think it’s better like that than being afraid,” said Soto.
Farmers need workers and lawyers want them to know their rights.
For now, U.S. and foreign workers will harvest the food we eat side-by-side.
An employer can pay more than $10,000 for one H-2A worker; that price could increase depending on the employee’s home country.
Hidalgo County District Attorney Ricardo Rodriguez wants more potential labor trafficking victims to come forward.
In partnership with the Buffet-McCain Institute, the DA’s office has started a labor trafficking exploitation unit, a first of its kind in the nation.
Rodriguez explained the program is not even a year old. The task force consists of three people: a prosecutor, investigator and coordinator.
“We've been able to dive into some few cases we've been working on but we're getting a lot of response from the community and we're getting calls so slowly it's getting out,” said Rodriguez.
The DA believes many people do not want to call in fear of their citizenship status.
He added, everyone should understand they are not going to get in trouble if they report the cases.
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