Just over half the pickers working in Sundquist Fruit’s orchards east of Yakima this summer were hired from Mexico through the H2-A guest worker program, which is supplying more of the region’s agricultural work force every year.
On Wednesday, the new Mexican consul to Washington, Roberto Dondisch, visited with some of those workers and farm owner Andrew Sundquist, to discuss the growing guest worker program.
“We want to make sure that (Mexicans working in Washington) have their rights respected, that they have housing, that they are not overworked,” Dondisch said.
“So far, what we’ve heard at the farms we’ve visited is that workers are well-treated and want to return. People come, they work very hard for a few months and then they get to go home to their families and their own farms.”
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Workers at Sundquist’s farm have been returning and recruiting more of their relatives each year. This year he hired 144 guest workers, he said, up from 40 in 2013.
So far, what we’ve heard at the farms we’ve visited is that workers are well-treated and want to return. People come, they work very hard for a few months and then they get to go home to their families and their own farms.
Roberto Dondisch, Mexican consul
That growth is typical, according to Wafla, an agricultural group that recruits and coordinates guest workers for farmers such as Sundquist. Its H2-A program has grown 400 percent during the past five years, as growers look to offset a local labor shortage, executive director Dan Fazio said.
Growers can only hire through the H2-A program if they’ve already looked to hire domestic workers. They have to provide housing and transportation from Mexico for the workers contracted under the federal program, Fazio said. And all workers on farms using the program — guest and domestic — are required to earn at least $12.69 an hour.
It’s more expensive than hiring locally, but for growers who can afford to invest in housing, it’s worth it to have a guaranteed work force to get fruit off the trees, Fazio said.
“I guess we saw the writing on the wall. Every year, we had fewer and fewer people coming in the door (for jobs) and we’d raise wages and still be short,” Sundquist said. “The guys we did have were running ragged.”
Now, in his fourth year with contracted H2-A workers, Sundquist said he has the work force to get ahead of the harvest and can give crews Sundays off.
But hiring through the H2-A program also can create legal issues for growers, who have to document that they can’t find domestic workers before hiring temporary guest workers. If not, they can be sued.
A class-action lawsuit from more than 600 domestic farm workers alleging that Mercer Canyon, a farming corporation south of Prosser, failed to tell them it was offering $12-an-hour jobs before it brought in guest workers in 2013, is pending in federal court.
The guest worker program also has been criticized by workers rights and legal aid groups that say workers in the program have little recourse if they are mistreated, and they can’t just go home.
Fazio counters that the highly regulated H2-A program offers better wages and working conditions for foreign workers. When growers use the program, it ends up boosting wages for all workers, he said.
The 15,000 guest workers contracted by Wafla, which is by far the largest but not the only H2-A contractor in Washington, make up about 15 percent of the state’s agriculture work force this year, Fazio said.
He expects that to grow to 30 percent in the next five years.
And the growing program means more work for the Mexican Consulate to ensure its citizens are treated fairly.
“These guys are far away from home, in a system they don’t always understand, and we want to make sure they are taken care of,” Dondisch said. “At the end of the day, these are the people that need help the most.”
There are always concerns for farm workers, such as who is responsible for medical care when someone is injured on the job, but under the H2-A program those problems are easier to address, he said.
“With H2-A, we know where people are and we know who to call,” Dondisch said.