Fast focus: What should we do about the farm labor shortage? Recruiting trip report

February 17, 2013 

I have just returned from the two-day job fair organized by the U.S. Consulate in Nogales, Mexico. The Washington Farm Labor Association, on behalf of 25 Washington farmers and growers, had asked that I lead a team to meet with U.S. and Mexican government officials plus make presentations to Mexican nationals interested in applying for agricultural seasonal work in our state. As a retired U.S. Foreign Service officer with 31 years of international experience in diplomatic and consular affairs, it was a task for which I was well qualified.

The event attracted 5,300 persons, with close to 70 percent (3,600) interested in exploring seasonal job opportunities in our agricultural fields. The attendance far exceeded our initial expectations. The employee candidates now face individual interviewing and vetting and must meet stringent requirements set by the U.S. Department of Labor and the U.S. Consulate before they can get a temporary work visa.

In requesting this foreign labor, our farmers and growers, for their part, must show that they have made every attempt to hire Americans and U.S. legal residents beforehand. Only then can they apply for the H-2A Visa program which allows them legally to bring in a limited number of foreign guest workers for a limited time to perform an approved specific agricultural function.

The process is unwieldy and incurs costs for the employer, including the provision of temporary housing and transportation. Only the larger agricultural employers can afford it. Many of our small farmers and growers are not presently able to benefit from this program. Crops will still rot in the fields so long as we cannot count on a full contingent of workers, domestic and/or foreign. Nevertheless, we are committed to minimizing this problem and making this process work, so long as our agricultural interests demand it. We owe it to farmers, growers and the broader Washington economy to make this work.

-- FELIX VARGAS, Washington Farm Labor Association

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