Imported farmworkers need protection from recruiters, GAO says

By Philip Brasher

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WASHINGTON, March 6, 2015 - Mexicans and other foreigners who are imported to temporarily work on U.S. farms and in the food industry need better protection from recruiters who charge hefty, prohibited fees and lie about jobs, investigators say.

About 44 percent of farmers and other employers who use the H-2A and H-2B visa programs to employ foreign workers rely on the third-party agents rather than hiring directly, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.

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Workers, federal officials and advocacy groups interviewed by the GAO investigators told of a number of abuses, including charging the illegal fees of as much as $1,250. The agents also sometimes recruit workers for jobs that don't exist or fail to supply important information about the employment, including wage levels.

The Department of Homeland Security isn't doing what it could to help either, according to the report. DHS collects job information from employers when they apply to use the visa programs, but the agency doesn't compile the information electronically and make it publicly available. The department eventually will start handling the information electronically but that is several years away, officials said.

The programs have become increasingly popular as security has tightened on the southern border and employers have struggled to find legal workers.

The number of H-2A visas, for farmworkers, rose 23 percent from fiscal 2009 to 74,192 in 2013. The number of H-2B visas, which are heavily used by the food industry, increase 28 percent over the same period to 57,600. Some 94 percent of the H-2A workers and 71 percent of the H-2Bs were Mexicans in 2013.

Workers sometimes put up land or other property as collateral to borrow the money to pay the illegal recruiters' fees, the report said. During discussion groups with the investigators, workers said the interest rate on loans was between 10 and 15 percent.

“Borrowing money at high interest rates to pay these fees can result in debt bondage, a possible indicator of human trafficking,” the report said. And advocacy groups told the investigators that the debt made “workers are generally more willing to put up with poor work conditions or abusive situations.”

The GAO investigators interviewed three H-2A employers, two of whom said they prefer not to use agents. One employer told the investigators he believed the recruiter he used was pocketing part of the workers' paychecks. The employer now relies on former workers for referrals.

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