How Your Lettuce is Grown: Our Broken Guestworker System

By Amy Joyce


Recently a good friend sent me a postcard that listed the “ingredients” for building a global community. “Know how your lettuce and coffee are grown” was one of the ingredients listed. In researching the reality of migrant agricultural workers in the United States, I have come to understand the importance of that statement; one of the “how’s” of production is the labor force that plants and harvests our crops. My research led me into a study of one small sector of the migrant agricultural labor force that puts food on our tables and that suffers terribly at the hands of U.S. agricultural employers all the while. These are the agricultural laborers we call “guestworkers.”

This relatively small group of migrant farmworkers captured my attention and became the focus of my research. I discovered that their plight was terrible, and that the U.S. agricultural guestworker system in which they are working is outrageous in its disregard for human rights and dignity. I realized how ignorant of this system and these injustices I have been. Now, knowing some of the shameful truth about the abusive and exploitative agricultural guestworker system we have in the United States, I feel compelled to let others “know how their lettuce and coffee are grown”—for the sake of education that will impel activism and change.

The United States has a “guestworker” program called the H-2 program. It originated in 1943 when the Florida sugar cane industry was granted permission to hire Caribbean sugarcane harvesters on temporary visas, called the H-2 visa. In 1986, the guestworker system was revised; the guestworkers were divided into two groups, each awarded its own particular visas. Agricultural workers received H-2A visas, and the nonagricultural workers were given H-2B visas. These visas would allow U.S. employers to hire foreigners to work for them in the United States for up to ten months per year. There was never a cap on the number of these H-2A visas per year, and the cap on H-2B visas, which started out at 66,000, has been greatly increased over the years.

Of the approximately 1.6 million agricultural workers in the United States, the Department of Labor (DOL) estimates that over 50% of these people are undocumented foreign nationals. Indeed, some of these workers have been guests of Annunciation House and have shared with me about some of their experiences in agricultural labor here in the United States. One married couple, Maria and Cesar, worked for 6 and 9 months, respectively, in the fields in New Mexico after the birth of their daughter, who is now one. Needing to support her, but being without papers and with very limited work options in El Paso, they chose to go to the fields. They had heard through a friend that they could get a job in agriculture if they were willing to endure the conditions.

For Cesar and Maria, a day of work would consist of being picked up at 3am in a van full of other workers and being driven to the fields in Las Cruces, Canutillo, Hatch, Chamberino, and other locations throughout the Texas/New Mexico border. They’d pick onions, lettuce, cabbage, or chile from 6am until 3pm. The sun, they said, was very hot, and the work was very tiring. And although some ranches provided water and bathrooms, others did not. When I asked about this, Maria just made a face and a kind of what-can-you-do? shrug and said, “We would wait until we got home.” They would usually get home by 4pm.

Cesar and Maria’s experience was that they did get paid what they were promised, which was $38 per day per person. They did not have a bad experience with the work. Yes, it was hot, tiring, and the foremen were “like slave drivers” who put a lot of pressure on them by shouting for harder and faster work. But now, Cesar and Maria have left the fields, and they are not worse off for their experiences there.

The situation is very different for many of the immigrants working in the fields of the United States, however. In our current guestworker system, the workers often find that they are hardly treated like “guests.” Because of the way the H-2 system is set up, the workers are prey to exploitation and abuse, and they have no recourse to change their situations. In the end, these workers end up more like slaves or indentured servants. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel recently observed: “This guestworker program’s the closest thing I’ve ever seen to slavery.”

Under the current H-2 system, U.S. employers must prove that they have been unable to find sufficient U.S. workers who are qualified, willing, and able to fill their jobs before importing foreign workers. They also must show that hiring these immigrant workers will not adversely affect wages of U.S. workers. Once employers have proven these things to the DOL, they are able to bring in foreign workers.

Vulnerable in their home countries because of their economic poverty, guestworkers come to the United States and still find themselves vulnerable due to the set-up of the guestworker system they have entered. They experience exploitation and abuse in many ways. Some of the most common ways are the following:

  • Having their identity documents seized by their employers;
  • Not being paid the promised wage;
  • Being forced to work overtime without pay;
  • Not being provided decent, humane living accommodations (even though employers are required to provide guestworkers with housing);
  • Being contracted to do one kind of work but being presented a different type of work to do—one for which a higher wage should be paid;
  • Not being given the amount of work guaranteed in their contract (even though the DOL requires employers to provide at least 75% of the guaranteed work);
  • Not being provided the workers’ compensation benefits to which they are entitled if injured on the job; and/or
  • Being threatened with deportation if s/he complains or asserts her/his labor rights.

These examples illustrate one major factor contributing to the extreme vulnerability of the guestworkers: H-2A visas permit them to work only for the employer who petitioned for their services. So, when a guestworker finds him or herself facing any of these kinds of abuses, s/he cannot simply find work with another employer. S/he must stay with the abusive employer or “go home.” “Going home,” however, is not an option for guestworkers; their economic situations are too dire. Thus, the very jobs that are supposed to help relieve their desperate economic situations only worsen them.

To add to the economic mire of this system, employers largely use recruiting agencies to find their workers. Recruiters, in the workers’ home countries, charge fees to the would-be-workers and sometimes even require them to leave collateral to ensure that they will fulfill the terms of their contracts. The collateral is often the deed to a worker’s home or car. In some instances, it is the signature of a wife signing off on an agreement that states that if her husband defaults on his contract, she will somehow reimburse the recruiter for her hu
sband’s debt. Then, in debt beyond imagining when they get here, and holding desperately to the dream of what they were promised they would earn, guestworkers are prey without defense. And many of them get all but eaten alive.

How is it that this exploitation can go on? How is it that the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) can have a published study called, “Close to Slavery: Guestworker Programs in the United States,” which documents this exploitation as systemic, yet the exploitation continues? How is guestworker exploitation witnessed publicly, yet it is not stopped?

The answer seems to boil down to two things: odds and values.

Employers are playing the odds in this current guestworker system—and the odds are in their favor. The odds of the DOL enforcing the agreements the employers make with their H-2A workers are minimal, and the odds of a guestworker actually being able to get legal representation to pursue a grievance against their employer are similarly slim. The odds, in fact, are so “good” for employers because in the United States there exists a significant lack of government enforcement of basic labor protections.

On paper, guestworkers do have rights and are entitled to some protections. However, the DOL does not have an adequate amount of staff to investigate workplaces or to enforce contracts. In 2004, for example, the DOL conducted only 89 investigations into the thousands of H-2A employers that existed (SPLC, “Guestworker Report: Lack of Government Enforcement”). Between 1974 and 2004, “The number of wage and hour investigators in the DOL declined by 14 percent . . . and the number of completed compliance actions declined by 36 percent. During this same period, the number of U.S. workers covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act increased by more than half—from about 56.6 million to about 87.7 million. The Brennan Center for Justice concluded in 2005 that ‘these two trends indicate a significant reduction in the government’s capacity to insure that employers are complying with the most basic workplace laws’” (SPLC, “Guestworker Report: Lack of Government Enforcement”.)

The federal government wants guestworkers here; it wants the fruits of their labor, but it does not value the guestworkers themselves. The DOL demonstrates clearly through its actions that the welfare of guestworkers is not a priority—or even much of a concern. For example, the DOL refuses to enforce the requirement that employers reimburse workers for their transportation (to/from the United States) and visa fees. It has not created a means of monitoring employers to ensure that they are paying workers agreed-upon wages. Worse yet, it continues permitting employers who have violated the rights of workers permission to import more workers!

It is obvious to see who and what the federal government values: United States employers and economic profits. The federal government has created a system that provides businesses with needed workers; yet that same system does not provide the workers with necessary and meaningful protections. Clearly, the guestworker is not being considered a human being but rather a commodity to be used.

And yet, the guestworkers continue to work—even with the documented abuses, exploitation, unjust working conditions, threats of deportation from employers, and threats of harm coming to their families and villages back home if they complain. Meanwhile, we are able to continue to snack on fresh fruit and eat delicious salads—all at fairly reasonable prices.

But can we continue to feast like this when our feast is the result of blatant injustice?

Fasting is what comes to mind as the response most fitting to this question. The kind of fasting, however, that Isaiah tells us the Lord wants is the following: “This . . . is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; Setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke; Sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless; clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own.” (Isaiah 58:6-7)

How to unbind the guestworkers? How to release their yoke? Our fasting ultimately needs to manifest in changed lifestyles, changed perspectives, and changed hearts. Our fasting will take a lifetime. In our immediate future, however, our fasting can manifest in advocating earnestly and vocally for just, humane, practical legislation on the guestworkers’ behalf.

The SPLC, having studied the current guestworker program and having litigated cases on behalf of guestworkers, has made some recommendations for reform of the United States’ current guestworker program. The SPLC suggests that without such alterations the abuse and exploitation of foreign workers will continue. Its recommendations in their briefest form are the following:

  1. “Federal laws and regulations protecting guestworkers from abuse must be strengthened.
  2. Federal agency enforcement of guestworker protections must be strengthened. and,
  3. Congress must provide guestworkers with meaningful access to the courts.”

(For a detailed list of the SPLC’s recommendations, see:

These are some of the things that we can be vocal and active in advocating for on the guestworkers’ behalf. In the meantime, I have read opinions that suggest there should not even be a guestworker program—that those people who work our fields should be granted citizenship. While this opinion is inflammatory to many, I believe that it is the answer rooted in justice.

I cannot predict when or how this might ever happen, but I know that we will we continue to eat our salads and drink our steaming cups of coffee. I reconsider the idea of fasting—not abstaining forever from leafy greens and coffee beans—but, rather educating ourselves about “how our food is grown” and taking concrete actions toward ensuring that what we consume is harvested by people living and working in dignity.



Originally from Chicago, Amy Joyce serves Annunciation House in a variety of capacities, including her role as volunteer coordinator. Amy is beginning her third year of service to Annunciation House.


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