|Cartoon by Khalil Bendib|
This article has been updated and corrected as a result of a court settlement on April 12, 2007. Read Global Horizons response to this article
About 170 Thai migrants paid thousands of dollars to recruiters in Thailand for the opportunity to work in the bountiful orchards of Washington state. Their tale illustrates the pitfalls of the H-2A guest worker program which is a mainstay - along with undocumented labor - of the U.S. agricultural system.
According to the Seattle Times, the migrant workers said they paid up to $8,000 each to Thai recruiters. Global Horizons, a California-based company, works with recruiters abroad and obtains H-2A agricultural guest worker visas, flies workers to Washington and sets them up in housing, as required by the federal program. Global Horizons denies working with any recruiter who received payment from a migrant worker.
Before taking the jobs, the workers believed they would live in a state-approved hotel and eat meals catered by a Mexican restaurant, according to the Seattle Times, and be able to send significant amounts of money home to their families.
Instead Global Horizons housed some Thais in a motel and a trailer that had not been approved, as required, by the state health department. Some workers, lacking kitchens or laundry facilities, would cook on hot plates on the floor and wash their clothes in a trash can, according to investigations by the state health department and the United Farm Workers of America (UFW) labor union. Photos from 2004 provided to CorpWatch by Seattle Times reporter Lornett Turnbull showed groceries crammed into a motel minifridge, a make-shift kitchen constructed on a motel room floor and a cramped dormitory in a trailer with bunk beds blocking an exit.
The orchards where the men worked paid Global Horizons which was responsible for paying the Thai workers. But they were not paid the promised amount on time, according to the state Department of Labor and Industries, and state and federal taxes were wrongfully withheld from their wages.
Money that Global Horizons was supposed to have sent directly to the workers' families through banks in Thailand also wasn't received on time, according to the state labor department. According to the UFW labor union, some workers got no information on what to do in case of workplace injuries; and according to the Seattle Times, some signed English-language contracts they didn't understand.
Speaking little or no English and knowing their ability to remain in the U.S. was contingent on their employment with Global Horizons, the workers didn't know where to turn. They worked for months in silence before coming in contact with union organizers and legal aid lawyers who helped make their story public.
Forestry Guest Workers
Global Horizons farm workers aren't the only guest workers who have had a rough go of it.
Immigrant workers in the U.S. on similar temporary H-2B visas fill jobs that even most undocumented immigrants don't want: the forestry work which keeps our nation's national forests and commercial tree plantations running.
After landscaping, forestry is the second largest source of H-2B visas for unskilled, nonagricultural foreign workers.
These workers wield chainsaws and dodge falling trees in snow and rain; carry heavy packs of seeds and pound shovels into rocky ground for hours on end; and often spend nights sleeping on tarps on the forest floor.
These "piZeros" also hurtle along windy mountain roads in over-crowded, unsafe vans driven by cut-rate contractors. Fatal accidents are common; seven men from one small town in Guatemala have been killed in separate accidents, and a total of at least 21 pineros from Honduras and Guatemala were killed in the past three years, according to a 2005 investigation by the Sacramento Bee.
There are about 22,000 H-2B pi_eros in the U.S. Most of them come from Mexico, Guatemala, or other impoverished Latin American countries. Like H-2A farm workers, they must stay with their employer to legally remain in the U.S.
In March a U.S. Senate subcommittee held hearings on their plight. And in the past two years, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed four class action lawsuits alleging labor violations by four different forestry contractors working on private timber land in the southeast, owned by International Paper, Plum Creek Timber Company, Weyerhaeuser, and other companies.
"They're expected to plant 2,000 pine trees a day," said Southern Poverty Law Center attorney Mary Bauer. She said they are paid $300 to $400 per week less than mandated by the U.S. Department of Labor.
"Everybody in the industry uses H-2B workers, and everybody in the industry underpays them," she said. "That seems to be the standard. I've rarely seen workers as exploited as these H-2B forestry workers."
The Northwest Workers' Justice Project also filed a class action suit representing pineros in Idaho. Attorney Michael Dale said many workers said they signed over the deeds to their land in Mexico in order to pay for their trip north, then lost the land because their wages are so low.
"They're essentially holding the workers in peonage," he said.
The current debate on illegal immigration has meant better media coverage of the abuse and exploitation that undocumented migrant workers routinely suffer. But the Thai workers represent a lesser known piece in the immigrant labor puzzle. They are here legally, under the federal government's H-2A visa program that allows companies to import foreign workers on a temporary basis for agriculture jobs after proving they can't get U.S. citizens to fill them. There are currently about 50,000 H-2A workers in the country. Visas are granted for the duration of the worker's seasonal employment, or periods up to one year, and employers can renew visas annually for up to three years.
The H-2A program was born with the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, which created a class of guest worker H2 visas. The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) created the H-2A category specifically for agricultural workers; professional skilled workers get H-1B visas and unskilled non-agriculture workers get H-2B visas.
Legal status does not guarantee fair treatment, and some guest workers endure worse conditions with less recourse than their undocumented counterparts. The H-2A program makes them fully dependent on the employer who recruited them and paid for their transport to the U.S. If they quit or are fired, they must leave the U.S. and if they do not, they are considered undocumented and subject to deportation.
Global Horizons is one of the country's largest labor contracting companies: "recruiting quality workers from diverse places like Thailand, India, Nepal, Israel, as well as Eastern and Western Europe," according to its website. The workers, who also come from Mexico, Vietnam, Malaysia, Guatemala, South Africa, Australia, Nepal and China, work in skilled and unskilled jobs ranging from nursing to agriculture in the U.S.
Founded in 1997, Global Horizons originally specialized in placing professionals such as agronomists and management consultants. But since 2000, the company has used the H-2A program to hire thousands of farm workers to harvest nuts, prune trees, and pick produce in about 28 states. Co-founder and Chief Strategic Officer Mordechai "Motty" Orian declined to give an exact number of workers employed or states with contracts.
The company's website credits Orian with developing a "powerful new standard in Twenty-First Century recruiting."
It describes the company's 1989 beginnings thus: "In the midst of a massive worker shortage in a foreign country. Born out of necessity and acting boldly, the newly-formed organization brought thousands of qualified workers into a strategic nation, averting impending economic disaster for that country."
But the Seattle Times reported different results for Global Horizons' contracting of Asian workers for construction and agriculture in Israel, presumably the "foreign" country mentioned above. Global Horizons disputes the Seattle Times's assertion that the Israeli Ministry of Labor cancelled the company's labor-contractor license because of "illegal employment of migrant workers."
Global Horizons essentially functions as an agent and middle-man between would-be workers in foreign countries and the agribusiness or other companies in the U.S. where the migrants actually work. Global Horizons signs up the foreign crews, pays for transportation to and from the U.S., gives them room and board, and shifts them from farm to farm as needed. The farm is responsible for following labor law as far as actual working conditions go and paying the contractor (Global Horizons) its agreed-upon rate (which would be higher than the workers' wages, since Global Horizons takes a profit.)
The majority of H-2A workers, like most undocumented workers, are from Latin America. But as many Latin American immigrants transition to construction or other jobs that pay better than farm work, Asian migrants may become a mainstay of the program. Many employers believe that they are more likely than Latin American workers to return home after their legal stay has ended.
Orian said that Mexican migrants "had all run away" from one workplace to seek work without documents while the Thai workers like those in Washington had been Global Horizon's "biggest success."
The United Farm Workers of America (UFW) charged that this success owed much to exploitive practices. Starting in the 2004, representatives of the UFW collected testimony about abuses from the company's workers and lobbied state and federal officials to investigate.
Last year the U.S. Department of Labor denied Global Horizons' requests for H-2A workers in Washington state, and launched federal investigations into wage and hour and other alleged violations. Washington state's Department of Labor and Industries also suspended Global Horizons' state license effective as of January 2006, citing "a persistent pattern of non-compliance stretching back to early 2004," said Labor Department spokesman Steve Pierce.
The December 30, 2005 letter from the department to Orian outlines allegations of the company's violations, including under-reported and underpaid industrial insurance premiums, and the fact that Global Horizons "failed to pay its workers in full by the pay date identified in its agreements with workers. This concerns untimely payments made directly to the workers and untimely payments paid directly to their bank accounts in Thailand." Global Horizons is appealing the department's decision.
Last fall the department laid out settlement terms and remedies the company could meet to retain its license, but in the December 30 letter it stated: "Global failed to satisfy these legal obligations." This decision is being challenged in a Washington state court.
Meanwhile in Hawaii, Global Horizons faced state charges of failing to provide workers compensation. The court ruled that Global Horizons was not culpable.
Faced with all this scrutiny, the potentially looming cost of lawsuits, and a suspended Washington state license, Global Horizons became the first H-2A company to sign a nation-wide agreement with a labor union, the UFW. The April 2006 agreement establishes basic workers' rights guarantees and a grievance and binding mediation procedure for about 1,000 Global Horizons workers nationwide. (The Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) also represents guest workers in North Carolina.)
Orian denies all the charges leveled against the company, calling them "pure lies."
"Workers' advocates are busy all the time going after H-2A programs because we're easier to go after than people who hire illegals," said Orian during a phone interview in September. "We provided them very nice hotels and condominiums, not some shacks on the street. If the workers make it dirty or do something we told them not to do one day, we can't help it. One guy decided to save money by washing his laundry in the sink, I can't force him to use the machine. They put a rice cooker on the floor and plug it into the wall. (Critics) say Global Horizons makes them cook on the floor, but if that's the way they want to cook, I can't force them to do anything different."
But he said after a "big fight," he realized cooperating with the union was to the company's advantage.
"We don't want anyone to say, God forbid, we're treating our guys not in a good way," he said. "We want the union to be the police for that, so we have another barometer in our system."
The three-year union contract gives Global Horizons workers a two percent raiseenough to cover union dues--over the federally mandated rate for H-2A workers, which in Washington is $9.01 an hour. (This federally mandated state-by-state rate, known as the "adverse-effect wage," is set above the local minimum wage to avoid depressing local pay.)
The union contract also requires companies to provide workers with medical care, paid work breaks, a seniority structure, and bereavement leave including round-trip transportation home. The agreement also protects workers from retaliation by the company and from firing without just cause.
"We've resolved a number of significant issues that directly affect the workers," said UFW organizer Eric Nicholson.
Organizing guest workers into labor unions is an extremely difficult prospect, since they are only in the U.S. for temporary stays and dependant on their employer for their legal status, housing, and transportation.
"Usually when [a guest worker] is seen talking to someone like me they're on a plane home the next day," said Nicholson, describing the Global Horizons unionizing effort as "a very brutal campaign, for two and a half years we were really slugging it out in the media." Global Horizon denies the charge.
But now things are different, Nicholson said. "If workers are brought into the country as guest workers, their interests will be better protected at Global Horizons than any other company now."
However, there is nothing to keep growers who had hired Global Horizons workers from switching to other sources - H-2A or undocumented - who don't come with union demands and restrictions.
"Now competitors will come in paying lower wages and benefits," said Nicholson. "That's where we come in" - organizing public pressure campaigns to try to convince growers to hire union Global Horizons labor rather than lower-bidding competitors.
Global Horizons has already lost one major contract to Munger Brothers, a California grower that had originally contracted with Global Horizons for 600 blueberry pickers. A lawsuit Global Horizons filed alleges that Munger Bros. illegally terminated its contract in order to hire undocumented immigrants through two agricultural contracting firms in the Central Valley. Munger Brothers denies the allegation.
"If you have the availability of illegals, it's cheaper just to use them, pay them minimum wage; they don't complain; everything's okay," Orian said.
Ironically Global Horizons is also the target of an ongoing class action lawsuit filed by eastern Washington residents. They claim that in 2004 Global Horizons violated the H- 2A requirement by failing to rule out hiring a local workforce before bringing in migrants.
In addition to higher cost and possible union involvement, growers who use the H-2A program face piles of red tape and frequent delays. Many who have tried to navigate the opaque government bureaucracy tell horror stories about H-2A workers finally arriving when the harvest is almost over.
But an increasing labor shortage in the agricultural sector means that demand for H-2A workers will likely increase. Growers of onions in Texas; apples and cherries in Michigan; and pears, lettuce, and raisins in California's Central Valley are among those who say they watched hundreds of millions of dollars worth of crops rot this year because they lacked enough hands to harvest them.
Many critics of guest worker programs say labor shortages should be addressed by improving wages and conditions so that farm work will attract workers already in the U.S., rather than sucking in a new crop of easily-exploited foreign workers.
"There are plenty of people who will do the job if you pay them enough," said JosÚ Oliva, director of the National Network of Workers Centers for the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice. "The pretension that there aren't enough workers here and you have to go and import them is just a way of expanding this slave labor program rather than paying decent wages.
Guest worker programs have been part of the U.S. economy since at least 1942, when the Bracero program brought temporary workers from Mexico to ease a labor shortage during World War II. Ten percent of the Mexican braceros' wages were held in trust and were supposed to be returned to them with interest back in Mexico, but most never saw the money.
In 2004 President Bush announced his intention to start a greatly expanded guest worker program as part of reforming the immigration system.
However the guest worker issue has been a political hot potato since then, with antiimmigrant politicians vehemently opposing any program with a path to legal residency - which they call "amnesty" -- and immigrants rights groups demanding a path to residency as integral to any new program. A guest worker component was included in various immigration bills proposed over the past year, but to date none have been passed.
The bi-partisan AgJOBS bill, which would reform the H-2A program by, among other things, increasing the number of visas and adding a path to legalization, is favored by many in the industry and some immigrants rights groups. It is currently stalled in the legislature.
Meanwhile, unions are looking to contracts to end he worse abuse. After signing the contract with Global Horizons, UFW president Arturo Rodriguez lauded it as a way of "making the guest worker program fair and just."
Other immigrants rights advocates are more skeptical, saying that the Global Horizons saga shows that any guest worker program is bound to be plagued with exploitation and poor conditions, and the only just course is to open up legal residency to all workers in the U.S. and to improve wages and farm conditions so that legal residents and citizens will fill the jobs.
"The history of experiments with guest worker programs in this country is full of lessons," said Amanda Shanor, program officer for the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights and a long-time farm workers' advocate. "From the abuse of the Bracero years that the courts are still trying to clean up, to the slavery cases of today that occur disproportionately in guest worker setting, these programs create an imbalance of power between workers and employers in which workers lose the ability to speak out for better wages or working conditions."
Read response from Mordechai Orian, Chief Strategic Officer of Global Horizons, Inc.
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