In Florida, peak harvest season for many of the state’s most important fruits and vegetables is approaching — during the fall, winter and spring; that means a spike in demand for seasonal farmworkers. Many of them are migrants. But will there be enough workers to harvest Florida’s fields? Several area farm owners feel they’re in good shape for the coming season, but there’s some uncertainty.
Citrus farmer Larry Black is the general manager of the Peace River Packing Company in the Polk County town of Ft. Meade. “We don’t anticipate difficulty this year,” he says.
Black says citrus season began in late September and extends through mid-June. The season is a bell curve: volume is light early and late and peak season is December through April. Unlike many local growers, most of the farmworkers Black hires are U.S. citizens. At peak harvest he employs about 185 people.
“We have a rich history and we have a lot of families that are multi-generational associates at Peace River. Labor is important resource, an important part of what we do in agriculture, but it’s not our biggest challenge. We’re able to attract and retain a qualified workforce to both harvest and pack the crops we produce.”
Farmworkers for another local crop, strawberries, often travel from state to state following the harvest that peaks here from January through March. Michelle Williamson, the human resources supervisor of G&F Farms in Plant City says in the past it’s been mostly domestic workers harvesting strawberries, but lately more workers come from outside the country.
“We’ve had times where we had to drop off part of our acreage before the end of our market period because we didn’t have enough workers to get across the fields.”
The citrus grower trade organization Florida Citrus Mutual represents about 6,000 growers in the state and lobbies for those citrus farmers in Washington and Tallahassee. Their communications director Andrew Meadows says most oranges in Florida are harvested by migrant workers from Mexico.
“About 80 percent of our workforce takes part in the H-2A contract Visa program, which is administered by the Department of Labor. And the vast majority of H-2A workers are from Mexico. And how that program works is growers actually recruit workers from Mexico who fill out forms and applications to become an H-2A worker. And then, once they are approved they sign a contract to work for that grower for the season and harvest his or her crop.”
Meadows says that investment by growers means the temporary guest farmworker (H-2A) labor pool will be steady.
“That’s the advantage of the H-2A program is you create stability with your labor force. You know how many people you need. You work through the Department of Labor to get those workers contracted and then you bring them to Florida, they harvest the crop, and then they return to Mexico. So it does add a measure of stability to our crop. And that’s why many growers have looked to that program over the last few years.”
But the H-2A program for temporary migrant farmworkers has its critics. Elizabeth Mauldin is policy director at Centro de los Derechos del Migrante (CDM). She says the problem with guestworker programs is that workers are tied to their employers.
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“Their visas specify the employer with whom they’re going to work. And it’s virtually impossible for those workers to change employers. So what that means for workers is that they arrive here in the U.S. and are extremely vulnerable because complaining about their jobs could mean being sent home. And this is true for workers who have often paid large amounts of money for the opportunity to be here in the U.S., either through recruitment fees or travel and subsistence costs to get here in the first place.”
Despite the potential for labor abuses, it’s necessary for farms to hire migrant workers to harvest crops in West Central Florida because so few U.S. citizens are interested in working those fields.
“We have advertised for ten years for workers and we’ve never had anyone other than a Hispanic person show up to answer the ad. So Hispanic migrant workers: not so hard to find; everything else: impossible to find.”
Bill Braswell owns blueberry farms including Berry Care in the Polk County town of Auburndale. Farms typically hire two to three blueberry harvesters per acre. Braswell generally does not use the H-2A guestworker program, instead hiring migrants with appropriate work documentation during the winter-to-spring peak harvest season.
“They have to have a resident alien card. To do it legitimately what you have to do – even if you showed up at my farm and you wanted a job – I’ve got to do an I-9. But it is now a standard employment document.”
Braswell says a resident alien card, Social Security card and driver license are examples of documents he often accepts. He says a record blueberry season was just finished in Florida – 25 million pounds and they look forward to another record in the coming harvest.
During the presidential campaign, some candidates are saying that immigrant workers are driving down wages, taking away jobs from U.S. citizens and that a wall should be built along the Mexican border and that undocumented immigrants should be deported.
This is Republican Donald Trump during his campaign announcement in June:
“When Mexico sends its people they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems. And they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists and some – I assume – are good people.”
The number of people crossing the Mexico-U.S. border appears to be slipping. For example, the AP analyzed internal Obama administration numbers and determined that after a record number of deportations in 2012, “deportations have been declining steadily in the last three years.”
Florida Citrus Mutual’s Meadows says the jobs offered to Mexican workers in the temporary migrant farmworker (H-2A) program pay well and are lucrative enough that the U.S. political climate won’t stop people from migrating to Florida to harvest citrus.
“Often these H-2A workers make upward of 15, 16 dollars an hour. So, these are good-paying jobs, and certainly much higher paying than agricultural jobs in Mexico. They’re coveted jobs and people who work extremely hard, very skilled at getting fruit off the tree and to the processors and the packing houses. They want to come here and they want to make money for 8, 9 months of the year and then return and help their families with this added income. I have not heard of any sort of recruiting problems in Mexico finding H-2A workers.”
The idea that guest farmworkers don’t drive down wages of U.S. citizens is echoed by the citrus farmer we heard from earlier, Larry Black, who mostly hires U.S. citizens.
“The H-2A program has a higher – what’s referred to as the ‘adverse minimum wage’ – and it’s higher, much higher than the federal minimum wage. So, no, H-2A workers do not — that’s not a true statement: they do not drive down wages. They fill gaps in the labor supply when adequate labor is not available to harvest a crop or do another activity in agriculture. And there’s a corresponding H-2B program that can source workers for other types of industries other than agriculture.”
Florida Citrus Mutual’s Meadows says fewer workers are needed these days because the citrus crop is smaller than it has been in decades past. They expect an 8 percent decline from last year in the upcoming season because of recent problems like development, hurricanes, greening and citrus canker.
But Meadow’s claim about wages should be taken with a grain of salt, according to the advocate for migrant workers we heard from earlier, CDM’s Elizabeth Mauldin. She says because migrant workers can’t collectively bargain and are tied to employers it puts them in a weak position and could put downward pressure on the wages of all workers.
“It’s very common for workers to be told of one set of circumstances in their home communities and then to arrive to find that they have a different set of circumstances. One problem that we’ve been hearing about a lot is the effort of growers to push a production standard on workers so they have to meet a certain amount of production per hour or per day in order to make the wage that they’re supposed to be guaranteed. And besides that there are also problems with wage theft where even though the workers are told they’re going to make certain wage they may not make that; and because the workers are so vulnerable they may not complain about the abuses that they experience.”
The legal charity Gulfcoast Legal Services says it has helped several migrant farmworkers trapped in similar situations to escape human trafficking. Gulfcoast’s executive director, John Dubrule, calls it modern-day human slavery.
Almost all the growers agree: with migrant guestworkers coming from as far away as Mexico there will probably be enough farm laborers for the upcoming season. But there’s no way they can tell for sure until the harvests begin in late fall. And farmworker advocates will be on the lookout to make sure they’re treated fairly.
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