Kenny Jesus Zavala heard too many horror stories to enter the U.S. illegally. But when a recruiter came to his central Mexico hometown and offered him a legal path as a temporary worker, it sounded too good to pass up.
The recruiter promised that with an H-2A agriculture work visa, Zavala would earn $8.56 an hour picking oranges with no fear of sudden deportation. Zavala, 21, earned that much, but as soon as he cashed his check, the contractor would steal a third of the pay.
“The contractor told us that if we spoke up, no one would want to hire us again,” said Zavala of Moroleon, in the Mexican state of Guanajuato. “It’s worse than for the illegals because you’re not free to go. You have to stay with the contractor that brought you.”
The agriculture guest worker program was designed to provide a stable, legal work force for agriculture with safe working conditions for the immigrants, without adversely affecting local wages. More than 37,000 such visas were issued nationwide last year, primarily to Mexicans.
But farm worker advocates say the act has not met its goals — workers are still abused and often left dependent on middlemen who steal their money. And they say it shields corporate growers from lawsuits and sanctions over lost wages, leaving the workers with nowhere to turn. An Associated Press review of temporary farmworker requests in Florida found nearly two-thirds were filed by contractors.
Advocates want Congress to address those problems as it contemplates reauthorizing thousands more temporary farm workers under the proposed immigration bill.
Zavala was one of nearly a dozen migrant workers in central Florida who told The AP about being forced to pay contractors kickbacks. Most declined to give their names for fear of retribution. Many are afraid to file complaints because the contractors decide who gets to come back the following year. The contractors also provide worker housing, serve as translators and often offer the only ride to the grocery store or to the doctor.
Unscrupulous contractors once doctored the hours of the employees to steal from them. But as more large growers switch to electronic timekeeping, they are finding new means to squeeze money from the workers, said Mary Bauer, who recently co-wrote a study on the U.S. guest worker program for the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“This seems like a new variation on an old theme,” Bauer said. “Growers create this system where they claim the workers are not their employees to get cover. They benefit from it, and the contractors benefit, but the workers don’t.”
Her group wants the U.S. to require growers — not the contractors — to file guest worker requests with the federal Labor Department and step up enforcement of existing guest worker protection laws.
Walter Kates, who heads labor relations for the growers’ Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, said growers rely on the contractors because the current visa system is so convoluted — employers must get approval from four different federal and state agencies. That makes it impossible to guarantee they will get their workers on time without contractors.
“If there are problems out there, the majority of the industry condemns them as much as anyone else does. We don’t condone cheating workers, and we don’t want to be labeled with that black brush,” Kates said.
Because the workers are loath to complain and lose their jobs, most keep quiet or return to their native country. A growing number are also opting to go the illegal route where they are not dependent on one contractor.
Mexico City native Genaro Flores, 26, decided to go home in March after two weeks of losing money to the man who hired him. He has since returned to the U.S. illegally, working in Atlanta as a day laborer.
“It’s a lot better here,” he said. “I’m making money and I don’t have to give it to the contractor.”
The contractor system, in which independent harvest companies supply workers to large corporate growers, has exploded in the last 20 years. Many of these operations can fold up quickly if sued and lack the deep pockets of larger agriculture conglomerates.
A review of petitions requesting 4,700 guest worker permits in Florida since last September, showed about 75 percent were filed by contractors rather than growers, especially in the citrus industry. Tomato growers, who need more help year-round, are far less likely to rely on a middleman.
Part of the problem is that the contractor is caught between the grower and the worker.
The current H-2A agriculture visa allows workers to come to the U.S. for three- to six-month periods if local help cannot be found. The temporary workers must receive above average pay — $8.56 an hour in Florida.
Yet citrus pickers, the largest percentage of Florida’s guest workers, are usually paid by the number of oranges they pick and not by the hour. They have to pick about one orange every two seconds to reach $8.56 an hour.
Many do not, especially those attracted by the promise of a legal job who may not have a background in farm work. And growers don’t necessarily subsidize the makeup pay the contractors must shell out, said Greg Schell, an attorney for Florida Rural Legal Services.
Complaints can backfire. Consolidated Citrus LP, which employs Zavala’s boss, Benjamin Ramirez Harvesting, threatened to fire at least one contractor in the wake of worker complaints about pay. That would have left all the workers out of a job.
In response to the workers’ concerns, Consolidated handed out written messages to workers with their checks reminding them they “were under no obligation” to give money to Ramirez. He did not return repeated calls from the AP.
Mike Bartos, Consolidated human resources head, said he could not discuss ongoing cases but said the company had received complaints from Rural Legal Services, which prompted the messages. He said the company offers training for contractors and brings in federal and state agencies to talk with them about labor issues.
“If something like this is going on, (Consolidated) would not tolerate it,” he said.
Earlier this year, Schell signed roughly 20 people to a claim against the kickbacks. By May, all but four had returned early to Mexico, including Zavala, or no longer wanted to press their case fearing retaliation.
Zavala said Ramirez kept the temporary Social Security cards of those who left, meaning they could be used again for other workers.
For now, Zavala is biding his time, hoping his early return won’t affect his ability to get a visa next year. He wants to return to the U.S. legally to work for a friend gardening in Chicago.
If that doesn’t work out, he might come back illegally across the desert.