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More legal Mexican farm workers are coming to SC than ever. But few are protecting them.

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  • 8 min to read
More legal Mexican farm workers are coming to SC than ever. But few are protecting them.

Tens of thousands of foreign workers are flooding into South Carolina and other states through a government-sponsored program to take jobs Americans don’t want, even as the Trump administration clamps down on illegal immigration and pushes for a border wall to bolster security.  

These seasonal migrant workers mostly come from Mexico, and they’ve become an essential lynchpin in the agricultural network that moves fresh produce from the nation’s fields to its supermarkets and dinner tables.

Use of this "guest worker" program has risen steadily since the mid-1960s. But its growth has surged exponentially in recent years as the nation’s low unemployment rate and a massive crackdown on undocumented workers has made it difficult for farmers to find laborers to help harvest their crops.

Nearly a quarter-million foreign workers poured into the country to fill these jobs last year through the U.S. Labor Department’s H-2A visa program — almost triple the number recorded just five years earlier.

Roughly 5,200 of those workers have ended up in South Carolina so far this year, placing it among the 10 states that most heavily depend on the program. Use of H-2A workers here jumped 30 percent in the past year. Farmers say they have no other choice, with most Americans simply unwilling to do this grueling work for the state's prevailing wage of $10.95 an hour — among the nation's lowest. 

“You either import your labor, or you import your food,” said Hugh Weathers, South Carolina’s agriculture commissioner.

Protections in place to safeguard these workers, however, have not kept pace with the program’s explosive growth, leaving foreign laborers vulnerable to abuse, mistreatment and exploitation, legal experts said.

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Migrant Workers Map

The U.S. Labor Department's Wage and Hour Division has 14 inspectors assigned to watch over the 162 farm labor camps in South Carolina that use temporary foreign workers. But those inspectors must juggle that mission with a host of other cases involving different workforce issues.

South Carolina Legal Services’ Migrant Unit — the federally funded group responsible for representing workers’ rights — provides another layer of protection. But the group has one attorney and one paralegal to represent these temporary workers if problems arise. North Carolina, by contrast, has nine legal aid workers to assist guest laborers.

What’s more, South Carolina does not guarantee legal aid workers access to participating farms, as other states do. They must use a variety of strategies to connect with guest laborers — at times risking the wrath of farmers who don’t want them poking around their properties.

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H-2A farm workers spend their evening outside their housing at a camp near Ehrhardt Wednesday June 13, 2018. Grace Beahm Alford/ Staff

In 2017, for example, legal aid worker Jeremy Wierenga said he stopped at a field in the Midlands to chat with workers. Moments after he left the camp, a Ford F250 slammed its brakes in front of Wierenga’s car. Behind the wheel was the owner of the farm, who yelled and threatened to have him arrested. “It was super intimidating, and it was effective,” he said.

Yet, those efforts have uncovered problems that escaped the attention of labor inspectors, legal aid workers said. Among other things, they have documented several instances of workers being underpaid, stiffed on reimbursements for travel expenses or stuck with visa costs that should be borne by their employers, they said.

Last summer, Karla Martinez, the sole attorney in the legal aid migrant unit, visited a labor camp near Lodge, a tiny community in rural Colleton County, and discovered wooden units that lacked running water. Cockroaches crawled on moldy cots that lay on the floor. Electrical wiring popped out of the walls.

Martinez said she notified the Labor Department of these issues, but because a contractor owned the houses and not a grower, the complaint went nowhere.

Protecting workers

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Paralegal Jeremy Wierenga with the South Carolina Legal Services Migrant Unit discusses the conditions with workers living at a labor camp on Johns Island Tuesday June 12, 2018. Grace Beahm Alford/ Staff

In 2017, the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division investigated 483 agriculture worker complaints across the Southeast, but it appears that most of the agency’s attention went to states other than South Carolina. Since 2014, the Labor Department has conducted just 13 H-2A investigations in the Palmetto State, though the agency also pursued 92 investigations on behalf of other, undocumented, farm workers. Violations were found in the majority of those cases, the agency said. 

Agency officials said confidentiality requirements prevented them from discussing specifics of those complaints, but they insisted the Labor Department has a "strong commitment to protecting workers and holding employers accountable."

Sometimes, Martinez said, it’s faster to threaten employers with civil suits and settle out of court rather than wait for the government to intervene. This year, Martinez secured a $23,000 settlement for four Mexican blueberry pickers who had been underpaid by an Upstate grower who also failed to provide them reimbursements for travel and visa fees.

"The money means everything," said Angela Myers, director of the legal aid migrant unit.

Similar — and worse — incidents have been documented across the country.

In Arizona, for example, regulators last year pounced on a farm owner accused of keeping his workers in a dirty and dangerous encampment of old school buses and trailers. Another grower, in Missouri, was cited for providing unsanitary and unsafe housing. And in Washington State, a blueberry farm was accused of shortchanging workers on food and water while demanding they work “unless they were on their deathbed.”

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Paralegal Jeremy Wierenga with the South Carolina Legal Services Migrant Unit looks over the posted employee rights signs, mainly written in English, stapled to a bulletin board on the side of a house at a labor camp on Johns Island Tuesday June 12, 2018. Grace Beahm Alford/ Staff

Certainly, not all H-2A workers are treated this way, and some growers are known for going to great lengths to make their guest laborers feel comfortable. For example, Titan Farms, a large-volume peach producer in the Midlands, spent more than $350,000 to outfit its worker barracks with air conditioning.

Farmers say they are doing the best they can to navigate an expensive and often cumbersome visa program that has become a necessity to guarantee fragile crops are harvested on time and not lost to the elements. Any delay in securing labor poses a threat to a farm’s viability.

In North Augusta, for instance, farmer Clyde Gurosik said he lost almost $60,000 when his strawberries rotted in the field because a hang-up with the Department of Labor prevented his foreign workers from getting visas in time to help with the harvest.

“We’re trying to keep things running in a perishable environment,” said Kemp McLeod, a north Midlands peach, berry and row crop farmer. 

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At a camp near Ehrhardt, S.C., workers take turns scrubbing pesticides from their work clothes on a rusted old refrigerator door before hanging them on lines to dry outside their housing Wednesday June 13, 2018. Grace Beahm Alford/ Staff

Struggling to fill jobs

While the harvesting of row crops such as soybeans and corn has become mostly mechanized with combines and GPS-oriented tractors, the art of cultivating fresh produce remains primitive. Only human hands can prune fickle tomato vines or pluck soft and delicate blueberries from their stems.

Harvesting produce remains a labor-intensive enterprise: It takes about 220 workers, for example, to pick 80 acres of blueberries. A work day can last 16 hours with no breaks. 

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Migrant workers timeline

It’s arduous work, and in the Carolinas an entire harvest can be spent in hot, humid, sweltering weather. Temperatures can reach 100 degrees with 90 percent humidity. Hurricanes and droughts can wipe out entire harvests and cost workers a year’s salary.

South Carolina farmers have found it increasingly difficult to attract local, native-born workers to fill these jobs, even though the hourly pay is about $3 more than the minimum wage. 

"It takes work, trying to hire locals, high schoolers," McLeod, the north Midlands farmer, said. "One boy just told me, 'I can’t handle it.' Fifteen to 20 years ago, the whole shed was full of high school kids." 

The U.S. has long relied on Mexican farm labor to bridge those gaps. 

During World War II, the U.S. government created the Bracero program, which employers used to contract Mexican labor for farm work (Bracero is Spanish for laborer). Fraught with human rights violations, the Bracero program was eliminated in 1964. A year later, it was replaced with the H-2 visa program. And in 1965, the U.S. government put its first cap on legal immigrants coming from Mexico.  

For many years, undocumented migrant workers provided a ready source of labor for growers looking to avoid the cost and red tape of bringing in help with H-2A visas. But federal immigration crackdowns in recent years have cut into the undocumented workforce and made H-2A more of a necessity.

In the year following the 2016 election, farmers' requests for temporary workers jumped 20 percent. President Donald Trump has even made use of the program to secure foreign labor to work his 1,300-acre vineyard in Virginia.

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The H-2A guest workers program has seen rapid growth with the Department of Labor issuing 240,000 visas in 2017. At Titan Farms in Ridge Spring,S.C. 850 workers are employed to pick acres of peaches and work in the packing shed cleaning, sorting and packaging. Grace Beahm Alford/ Staff

The American dream?

Inside the sprawling packing shed at Titan Farms, silver conveyor belts whisked piles of peaches from the washroom toward the sticker machine. Dozens of women stood in rows examining the fruit for bruises and quickly discarding the rejects.

Titan Farms, located in a rural swath of South Carolina between the capital city of Columbia and the Georgia border, shells out $750 annually for each of its 850 guest workers. It’s a price owner Chalmers Carr is more than willing to pay in exchange for a stable, dependable workforce at Titan. (The average cost to hire an H-2A worker is about $1,500, including agent fees; Carr hired an in-house labor contractor).

Carr sees the program as a win for his farm and the guest workers, who can earn more here than they could back home.

“You wanna talk about the American dream,” he said. “They want to provide for their families.”

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Workers living in a migrant camp on Johns Island are provided with an open kitchen for meals Tuesday June 12, 2018. Farmers are required to provide meals or provide an on-site kitchen and transportation to a grocery store for H-2A workers. Grace Beahm Alford/ Staff

Still, not all farms have the resources to provide the same amenities as Titan. Many operate on tight margins with every harvest offering the potential for boom or bust. In this environment, some seek to hedge their bets by cutting corners and shortchanging workers, legal aid workers said.

Though the U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act protects the rights of these workers, the number of federal labor investigators assigned to look into potential violations has continued to decline while the nation’s workforce has steadily grown. 

At times, that has left others to take up the torch and try to provide a voice for a shadow workforce that remains largely invisible to the public eye. 

On a steamy June afternoon, Wierenga, the legal aid paralegal, drove through the pine forests of rural Bamberg County to speak with guest workers at a squash farm near Ehrhardt, a town of 545 people with the closest Walmart some 25 miles away. 

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Many workers living at a camp near Ehrhardt are from the same small, rural village outside Veracruz and use cell phones to keep in contact with family. Grace Beahm Alford/ Staff

Most of these workers came from same rural village in southeastern Mexico. They had endured a 19-hour bus ride to the visa-processing center in Monterrey and then traveled 32 hours more to reach South Carolina. Now drawing a paycheck, they were reluctant to discuss their working conditions and risk jeopardizing their jobs. 

One man scrubbed his work clothes against a well-rusted refrigerator door, trying to remove skin-irritating pesticides from the fabric. The man simply smiled and joked when asked about his routine.

No complaints here, the work crew told Wierenga. 

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Paralegal Jeremy Wierenga walk through the porch decorated with drying work clothes of the H-2A workers he visited near Ehrhardt Wednesday June 13, 2018. Grace Beahm Alford/ Staff

Reach Glenn Smith at 843-937-5556. Follow him on Twitter @glennsmith5.

Hannah Alani is a reporter at The Post and Courier covering race, immigration and rural life across the Palmetto State. Before graduating from Indiana University and moving to Charleston in 2017, her byline appeared in The New York Times.