Think Out Loud

Washington farm labor declines, while guest worker numbers rise

By Allison Frost (OPB)
April 5, 2024 5:11 p.m. Updated: April 5, 2024 8:13 p.m.

Broadcast: Friday, April 5

Recently released agricultural census data showed the number of farmworkers in Washington has dropped dramatically over the last five years. At the same time, the number employed through the H-2A guest worker program has nearly doubled. We learn more from Seattle Times reporter Alison Saldanha about these contrasts and what they mean.


Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. The total hired farm labor in Washington State dropped by nearly a quarter between 2017 and 2022. That’s according to a new Seattle Times’ analysis of recently-released federal data. It is a bigger drop than the national average and it happened despite the fact that there was an increase in workers who came in from outside the country. Alison Saldanha wrote about this for The Seattle Times and she joins us now. It’s good to have you on the show.

Alison Saldanha: Hi, it’s good to be here. Thanks for having me.

Miller: I think we should start with some definitions because when you just see the words, they can actually seem overlapping or slightly confusing. So can you explain what a US-based migrant farm worker is and what somebody who came in as a guest worker through the H-2A program, what their life is like?

Saldanha: So the census basically counts all migrant farm workers and that includes US-based farm workers and workers brought in through the guest worker program. And I guess the broad definition is a migrant farm laborer is somebody who cannot go home the same day that they’ve been working on the farm. A US-based migrant worker is somebody who has been living in the US and moves along the course following the harvest season, crossing state and county lines to work on different farms across the year. And the guest worker program is when employment agencies contract labor from other countries and bring them to work on farms in the United States.

Miller: Is that analogous to US-based migrant labor? I mean, if people who come here through the H-2A system, would they, say, follow harvests up the West Coast as things bloom and ripen from California to Oregon to Washington?

Saldanha: No. The job contracts of international workers brought in through the guest worker program are with employment agencies that take on the cost and responsibility of getting them here and providing living arrangements for them and then assigning them to farms that they will then work on. They’re not free agents as such, like the US-based domestic migrant workers who can find work on their own  on farms.

Miller: So what has happened in Washington over the last six or seven years with these two programs?

Saldanha: Well, according to the data – we looked at two data sets – one was looking at the agricultural census data which shows that the overall farm labor in Washington State has shrunk and at a faster rate than the national rate. And if you look closely at those numbers, you can see that the decline has more to do with migrant laborers. Their numbers are declining at a faster rate than other workers. And that kind of contrasts with the other data that we have from the state on the H-2A guest worker program. We can see that the number of international workers brought in has nearly doubled in the same period that the total farm labor has declined and the migrant labor has declined.

Miller: So basically, when you put these two things together, there has been a big increase in farm workers from outside the country, but the drop in US-based migrant farm workers has been so big in Washington State that the overall labor force has shrunk by about a quarter. You heard different reasons for this, from the employment agencies who bring in H-2A workers and from migrant farm worker unions or advocates. How did the two sides explain what’s happening?

Saldanha: State labor economists and these H-2A employment agencies both believe that domestic farm workers are aging out of the profession. They’re finding less strenuous jobs elsewhere and there’s a dwindling interest in farm work. However, farm worker unions and advocates believe that the profits that growers can earn by hiring international workers is more likely suppressing the number of domestic workers that are hired. They believe that it’s suppressing the overall wages and it’s cheaper for them to get workers from outside and pay them a set rate than to pay the harvest season rates that domestic workers could get.

Miller: Does the data that you have access to and you sift through seem to buttress one of these interpretations more than the other?


Saldanha: As I mentioned earlier, the data shows this decline in migrant workers and it shows this increase in the H-2 guest worker program. It doesn’t exactly tell us why. But going to the source, to the field and talking to these farm workers, there are several saying that they want to work and they feel like their opportunities are fewer as the guest worker program gets more popular. And the same has been brought up as a point in interviews with independent labor experts and farm worker advocates. These US-based workers are more likely to be aware of their rights and their work is not tied to their visas, and are more likely to ask for better working conditions and raises and overtime pay. They can and have unionized and guest workers don’t have the same liberties. Their existence in the US is tied to their visas. And it’s easy to see how employers may want to use that distinction to their benefit for their businesses.

Miller: One thing that stood out to me from your reporting is it’s not totally clear how much various farm workers are making, which is actually a surprise to me. Why is there not clarity about this?

Saldanha: Yeah. I found that actually to be very confusing in my reporting as well. So the H-2A program, which brings in the international workers, these workers are paid what is called an adverse effect wage, which is slightly higher than the minimum wage. And employment agencies believe that this higher wage is what is increasing the wage for all farm workers. Because in the off season, farm workers usually don’t get as much work and so their wages decline, but because of this adverse effect on wage, employment agencies say it’s increasing wages for all.

However, we have critics who are saying that these rates don’t actually align with what workers actually see in their paychecks. And it’s confusing because different farms have different systems even during the harvest season. Some pay bonuses depending on how much crop is harvested in an hour. Others pay a piece rate. And it is confusing and there’s no uniform system with this.

Also, that prevailing wage data is based on surveys that are carried out with farm owners and farm workers. And many critics say that it’s primarily carried out only with farm owners, and not farm workers, and is more likely to suppress all wages since the two are connected. I wonder if that makes sense.

Miller: It does to some extent, although I’m also realizing just how complicated this is.

Saldanha: Yeah.

Miller: But why is it that Washington saw such a bigger decline in migrant farm workers than the national average?

Saldanha: I think it sort of goes back to the idea that farm labor agencies and economists are saying that there are fewer workers available. But there are many labor advocates who say that this decline is manufactured. The farm labor advocates believe it’s not true and it’s a situation that’s been engineered to boost the H-2A program. That’s what they’ve shared in my reporting.

Miller: We’ve talked in the past about farm work or overtime laws. Just briefly because we’re running up against the clock, are those playing into this?

Saldanha: Well, many farm workers have said that the overtime laws have actually not helped them because it takes away their profit potential. They make the most money during the harvest season and that’s when it’s right for the picking, they can work more. But instead of being able to capitalize on overtime pay then, farm agencies are more likely to hire more international workers and spread the work and that’s forcing international workers to stay the entire year. And it’s also sort of suppressing the wages of domestic laborers because they don’t get to earn that overtime.

Miller: Alison Saldanha, thanks very much.

Saldanha: Thank you.

Miller: Alison Saldanha is a reporter for The Seattle Times.

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