Empowering Agricultural Workers: An Interview with Carlos Gutierrez

people picking apples with a ladder
October 04, 2017
Devon Gilliams

Guest workers are temporary, contractual, workers who travel to the United States to complete a certain type of job. Many of these workers work in the agricultural industry, for example, harvesting crops. These workers receive an H-2A visa, which allows nationals of designated countries to complete seasonal agricultural work in the United States. Unlike undocumented workers, who often do similar work, guest workers are legally working in the country under a contract with their employer. They are permitted to stay in the U.S. for the duration of their contract, usually a season, then they must return to their country of origin. Workers who perform well, according to the standards of their employer, can apply to return the following season. Ithaca does not have a considerable guest worker population, the few that are in the area work at a farm just outside the Tompkins County border.

Guest workers and undocumented workers provide vital work, inhabiting niches of the labor market that local citizens fail to occupy due to the nature of the work, which is often characterized by physically intensive labor and long hours. Locals are deterred from holding these positions because they have the opportunity to earn the same amount of money preforming far less physically demanding jobs. Guest workers, along with all  agricultural workers, do not have freedom of association and lack the legal protections that US citizens are granted surrounding the act of organizing. Without these rights, guest workers are often left powerless at the hands of their employers, unable to collectively band together in solidarity to demand safer working conditions.

The precarious nature of the work that guest workers and undocumented workers perform, make them ripe for exploitation by farmers and managers that seek to profit off of their circumstances. Reform is desperately needed, yet answers to how the jarring flaws of this system can be best addressed are not easy to formulate. In order to create equitable change and empower workers, activists and members of the community must first demand the creation and passage of legislation that serves to empower guest workers to organize. Unfortunately, logistical constraints such as the availability of money, resources, and sheer man power, greatly effect the power of legislation’s ability to create realistic change. In order to create sustainable and pragmatic change that fully protects guest workers, the nature of the agricultural industry and the guest workers system must be further scrutinized and restructured.

Devon: Who are guest workers and are there any present in the local Ithaca community?

Carlos: “Guest workers are workers that are under contract. They are brought from Mexico, Jamaica, Haiti, Central America, many other countries…with a visa. Usually it is an H2-a visa. It allows them to be in the country. They are seasonal workers, they are for example harvesting. Right now there is a group of Mexican workers [in upstate NY] picking corn. Depending on where they are, the contractor will take them somewhere else, to do some other type of job related to agriculture. Last year we had Haitian workers coming from Florida. Generally we have undocumented workers working in the dairy farms and undocumented workers working in the restaurant business. Some of them have been here for years, 7-10 years…. They have a job, they live locally, they circulate, and they are part of our community. I have met many of them through my job with OSHA.

Devon: Are the temporary guest workers traveling back and forth between their country of origin and the United States between seasons, or are they here for a few years?

Carlos: They will not stay all year round. The workers in Canada, which is a different system, they will stay for eight months then go back. The group here will be here [in upstate New York] until the end of September.  But it is a temporary thing, then they need to go back. If they do well here, according to the employer, they can apply again for next year, and can be given preference to come back. …

Devon: People who don’t know a lot about guest workers will use the argument, “They’re taking our jobs.” Obviously there is a gap in the labor market where there aren’t people here seasonally to fill these jobs, for example harvesting or milking. What would you say to people who use that argument?

Carlos: “I think that half of that is true, the other half is not accurate, because the workers are not determining the market… [Those who make] ..[t]he argument that guest workers are taking their jobs, needs to understand why he is not taking that job. If he was offered that job, why would he not take it? The answer is, why would he take that job if he doesn’t have to work that hard flipping burgers. And now there is a competition. That’s [flipping burgers] a lot easier than this one [milking cows or harvesting], I can work 60 hours a week, but I am not going to work 80 hours a week at that place. I could but I don’t have to, because there is an alternative. The government and the industries will not, and this is the struggle and the contradiction, politically and economically in the country. They can not allow every undocumented worker to leave, because they’re going to go broke. And if they do, they will have to pay more in order to attract workers to go into that industry. And they don’t want to do that.”

Devon: “Is there a way for these workers to collectively organize to demand protections, or certain rights, to protect their job, or demand certain health and safety conditions. Or because of their visa and the temporary nature of the work, must they go along with what the employer makes them do?”

Carlos: “Mostly what is happening is there are advocates that are bring their grievances forward. …The law still applies [to guest workers]. The employer still has to provide a safe and healthy environment. It doesn’t mean that they do. [But] in the agricultural industry, …they have certain rights, but they do not have right to organize. They don’t have that right because that is the deal [the U.S. government] made with the Southern States, during the New Deal. … These conditions, continued the heritage of slavery. The South said, “No right to organize.” They have an argument,“look we have all this corn and if we don’t get it out were going to lose it. Whatever is left will be really expensive, and then you will suffer. So we need people here to take it out under any circumstances, we can’t have people organizing, and pushing for rights, lets say pushing for a union, because then you will suffer.”

The truth is […] there are ways for dealing with providing safe work, healthy work, and dignified work.  But that doesn’t happen just by passing legislation, because we know in many places that the law, like OSHA, [is] not being enforced… OSHA doesn’t have enough investigators or compliance officers to visit every place periodically to see that the law is being followed. So they can get away with it. So even when you have the legislation, it doesn’t work [automatically’] because you need the agency to cover the budget. And Trump right now is cutting OSHA’s budget then that means there are going to be less inspections and employers will take advantage... [U]nless the worker is willing to call me for example us, and say I need to file a complaint, and do it confidentially, [it is very hard for them to do so.] […]

Some workers [may also] say, “My situation in the US is very precarious, and they may deport me, so I am going to make as much as I can. Even if I get taken away, and lose a couple weeks of money because I got taken away, I still will be doing better than if I don’t have a job.” …The farmers they know that and they take advantage of that. So you’re living off of these people’s fear and circumstances. And when these people get taken away, others will come back and you are going to continue to take advantage of that. Some farmers say, “Well we are for immigration reform.” But when we in the community are advocating for immigration reform, they don’t show up.

Devon: Obviously there is no clear cut answer to solve this problem. But what would you say to people that wanted to try to get involved to try to create a more democratic or equal system? This is obviously not an accidental precarious situation that these people find themselves in, so how can we enact change as people in the market?

Carlos: “We need to empower workers in agriculture to organize. That empowerment starts with organizing to push the government to approve and pass legislation that gives them the right to organize. Once they have the right to organize, then there will be a two way conversation. …There is a [long] way to go.”