Farm worker rights coalition urges Biden Administration to fully investigate & reform the H-2A program following Georgia ‘modern-day slavery’ human trafficking cases

WASHINGTON, D.C.—A coalition of labor, civil and immigrant rights’ organizations sent a letter to Vice President Harris and the Secretaries of the U.S. Departments of State, Labor and Homeland Security calling for a thorough audit and investigation into the H-2A agricultural guest worker program after discovery of human trafficking, slavery, and money laundering by South Georgia growers and farm labor contractors. The letter highlights urgently needed reforms, including more oversight, increased transparency, and greater accountability and enforcement. It is addressed to Vice President Harris, Secretary of State Blinken, Secretary of Labor Walsh, and Secretary of Homeland Security Mayorkas.

The letter cites findings of “Operation Blooming Onion,” in which the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Georgia indicted two dozen individuals with multiple charges, including forcing H-2A workers from Mexico and Central America to work in brutal and inhumane conditions, threatening workers with gun violence, and sexual assault. Two people died as a result of these abuses.

The letter, signed by the leaders of nine organizations including UFW Foundation and the United Farm Workers, urged the administration to take action to “implement policies to prevent the abuses exposed in Operation Blooming Onion.” The letter recommended that the administration “ensure that agricultural employers cannot benefit from the labor of trafficked workers; put into place structures and protections for workers to be able to assert their workplace rights; provide for meaningful recruitment protections that prohibit recruitment abuses, increase recruitment transparency and provide for greater accountability.”

Juan Angel, a former H-2A farm worker from Georgia, said:

I’ve worked for several companies in several states. It has gotten progressively worse each season. I would say, from my experience, 80 percent of labor contractors are doing things illegally. Even when they treat us okay, they find ways to cheat us of the little money that we make. For example, one of our contractors at the end of the season got us together after he was sued by the Department of Labor in Indiana for not paying people properly. He was fined and had to pay back money to the Indiana workers. After that happened, he had a meeting with all the workers he had here in Georgia, paid us with a check for the work that we did, and told us that if we cashed the check and kept the money we no longer had a job next season. But if we cashed the check and we gave him the money back, he would hire us back. We all paid him back. Every time something like this happened, I felt angry because I couldn’t do anything, not on my own. Everyone is afraid, so I knew nobody would have my back. When I did fight back and told them I had rights, he fired me. Now I am working in this country as an undocumented farm worker. I didn’t want this, I want to go back and see my family, but I was left no other choice.

UFW Foundation Executive Director Diana Tellefson Torres, said:

This case is appalling. Each year, the H-2A program grows, creating space for more abuse and violations of human rights. UFW Foundation has been working with farm workers on the ground in Georgia where it is clear that abuses are prevalent. But, these violations are certainly going on in other places and so we call on the Biden Administration to conduct a thorough investigation into the H-2A program. The administration has the responsibility to seek justice for all victims of these horrific crimes and to ensure they never happen again.

United Farm Workers President Teresa Romero, said:

What we are seeing with the H-2A program in Georgia—and likely elsewhere in America—amounts to modern day slavery. This is an especially gruesome example, but it's not isolated. This story is one symptom of a program that needs urgent intervention. We must act with the urgency that matches the severity of the flaws in this program.             

Polaris Chief Executive Officer Catherine Chen, said:

Operation Blooming Onion” is only the tip of the iceberg of abuses in the H-2A system. To end forced labor in American agriculture, we must change the temporary guest worker system. Our laws do not allow a guest worker to leave their job without losing their legal immigration status. This prevents workers from leaving abusive employers and enables forced labor, debt bondage, and wage theft. We urge the Biden Administration and Congress to work together to fix the fundamental flaw in the H-2A visa program. It is unacceptable that workers legally brought to the United States to grow our food are subjected to human trafficking and exploitation."

Full list of signatories below.

Teresa Romero, President, United Farm Workers (UFW)

Diana Tellefson Torres, Executive Director, UFW Foundation

Natalie Camacho, Interim Chief Executive Officer, Farmworker Justice

Baldemar Velasquez, President and Founder, The Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC)

Reyna Lopez, Executive Director, Pineros Y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN)

Elizabeth H. Shuler, President, American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO)

Paul O’Brien, Executive Director, Amnesty International USA

Thomas Saenz, President and General Counsel, Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF)

Catherine Chen, Chief Executive Officer, Polaris

Margaret Huang, President and Chief Executive Officer, Southern Poverty Law Center

Janet Murguia, President and Chief Executive Officer, UnidosUS