Guest Workers, Legal Yet Not Quite Free, Pick Florida's Oranges

Jan 28, 2016
Originally published on February 2, 2016 7:25 pm

In citrus-growing areas, you see lots of old converted school buses on the road; these are company buses, carrying the workers who will harvest oranges and grapefruit. And in the evening, some of those buses roll into a truck stop on a two-lane country road south of the town of LaBelle. Young men scramble out, trot into the store and line up at the taco counter.

This is where I met Esteban Gonzalez and his brother Isaac, from the Mexican state of Veracruz.

They are part of a small army of "guest" workers who now pick most of Florida's citrus crop. Employers are allowed to bring in such seasonal farmworkers from other countries using a category of visa called H-2A.

For employers, the program involves some extra costs: They have to provide free housing for H-2A workers, and cover the costs of transportation here.

They also have to pay a wage that the federal government considers fair. But the good thing — if you're an employer — is that workers on H-2As are only allowed to work for you.

And this is the reason that the H-2A program has become increasingly popular, especially among citrus growers.

The way Justin Sorrells tells the story it began with a single moment, 17 years ago.

"We were harvesting one of our family groves, with a harvesting crew," Sorrells says, "and directly across the street, there was another grove owner who was having trouble getting labor. So he walked across the street, went to our harvest crew, and offered them a nickel more per box to pick his oranges instead of ours. And the crew did that."

"And that was the day my father said, 'This is it. We have got to have more reliability in our labor force,' " Sorrells says.

His father could have offered the workers who had defected a little more money. But Sorrells says that would have led to never-ending negotiations with every work crew.

"We have been 100 percent H-2A since that day," Sorrells says. "We were the first company in the state of Florida to utilize H-2A labor in citrus."

They were the first of many. Just in the past five years, use of H-2A workers has boomed. Sorrells estimates that 85 percent of the workers currently picking citrus crops in Florida are foreign guest workers. It's expanding into other crops, too. Nationwide, about 140,000 farm jobs were filled by H-2A workers last year; that's twice what it was four years ago.

Esteban Gonzalez says he accepted the offer to come to Florida because there's not much work back home. Here in Florida, he's guaranteed a wage of $10.70 an hour and can earn more if he's a fast picker.

He's done this for part of every year since 2007. This year, his contract calls for him to spend eight months in the U.S. During the last two months of his stay, a labor contractor will take him by bus to Georgia to pick melons, and then to Indiana to detassel corn (a labor-intensive step in the production of hybrid corn seed).

When he's in Florida, he lives in a fenced housing compound behind the truck stop in LaBelle, in one of 30 identical yellow houses that were built to house H-2A workers.

In the back there's a room where 10 workers sleep. A couple of mattresses are just lying on the floor. In the front, there's a kitchen, but it's not very useful at the moment. The gas stove doesn't work at all, and the refrigerator isn't keeping things cool. There's a gallon container of milk, about a quarter full, sitting on the kitchen table.

Buses take these workers everywhere: to the citrus groves in the morning and back here again in the evening, with a stop along the way to pick up food.

It's an austere life, but Gonzalez says he's really only here to work. In fact, his main complaint is that there's not enough work. A disease called citrus greening has cut into Florida's harvest. "Last year and this one have been very difficult," Gonzalez says.

On this particular day, for instance, his work crew was assigned to pick one section of a grove, and it took only three hours, so he earned only about $30 for the day.

That has happened a lot, he says, and he does feel a little trapped.

This is one of the biggest criticisms of the guest worker program: that these workers are bound to work for a single employer, and are dependent on that employer for work, housing and transportation for the entire period of the contract. They can choose not to return next year. But for the term of their contract, they're stuck.

Philip Martin, an economist at the University of California, Davis, who has spent most of his professional life studying the situation of farmworkers, says the freedom to find a better deal can be really important.

"The biggest thing that has helped farmworkers has not been unions," he says. "It's been cellphones. Because they can call each other and say, 'Hey this guy's paying a little more per bin than over there,' and workers can move."

Martin expects the number of H-2A workers to keep growing. He thinks they already make up about 10 percent of the agricultural workforce and could reach 20 percent, even though employers are expected to hire U.S. workers first.

It means that these two groups — foreign guest workers and domestic workers — will increasingly work side-by-side, while living very different lives.

Many domestic farmworkers also came to the U.S. from other countries. It's estimated, in fact, that about half of them are in the U.S. illegally.

And it's actually hard to say who's better off: The H-2A worker or the undocumented domestic worker.

I met one of those U.S. workers, named Jaime. He spent 15 years working in citrus, but switched this year to other crops, in part because citrus greening disease has made the citrus harvest less attractive for workers.

Unlike an H-2A worker, he gets to decide how much he'll work, and where he'll work. Also, he points out, he has a real life here, and a family.

He pulls out his smartphone and plays me a recording of his daughter practicing for a presentation at school. This daughter was born here; she is a citizen.

We listen together as his daughter talks about her dreams. "My ultimate goal is to become a pediatrician," she says. "I like helping people out, whether it's dedicating my free hours to help out in the community, at my church, and helping to tutor younger children after school."

But another aspect of his life is fear — enough fear that he did not want me to use his full name. He and a couple of his other children are not here legally.

On the H-2A side of this divide, Esteban Gonzalez, from Veracruz, says he prefers being here in the country legally. "Just to have papers; it's better to be legal," he says. He pulls out his passport, and shows me the visa that's proof of his right to be here.

Gonzalez has a family, too. That family, back in Veracruz, is a big reason why he's here. "I have a son in university, and a daughter in high school," he says. If I was there, I wouldn't be able to pay her semester fees, his university fees. I'm able to help the kids get ahead, that's what the U.S. allows me to do."

I asked each of these workers, "Which of you has a better life?"

And each worker preferred his own life.

But each one also said that what he'd really like would be to live here legally, yet also have the freedom to choose his own job.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Florida's annual citrus harvest is underway. Many of the oranges will be picked by guest workers. So we're reporting on just what a guest worker is. The definition matters because it's a part of our national immigration debate. Some of the presidential candidates want American businesses to lean more heavily on talented guest workers, people brought here to work specific jobs. The number of guest workers is already growing, and this story reveals why the practice is controversial. NPR's Dan Charles reports.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: The way Justin Sorrells tells the story, there was a moment 17 years ago that changed the way America gets its orange juice.

JUSTIN SORRELLS: We were harvesting one of our family groves with a harvesting crew.

CHARLES: Sorrells is telling me this story while the citrus harvest goes on all around us. There are men on ladders half-hidden by tree branches, gathering fruit into heavy sacks hanging from their shoulders.

SORRELLS: And directly across the street, there was another grove owner that was having trouble getting labor. So he walked across the street and went to our harvest crew and offered them a nickel more a box to walk across the street and pick his oranges instead of picking ours, and the crew decided to do that. And that was the day my father said, this is it. We've got to have more reliability in our labor force.

CHARLES: Sorrells says his father could've offered those workers a little more money, but that would've led to never-ending negotiations with every work crew. So he found an alternative, a way to bring in seasonal farm workers from other countries like Mexico using a category of visa called H-2A. The H-2A program does cost some extra money. Employers have to provide free housing for workers and transportation. They also have to pay a wage that the federal government considers fair. But the good thing if you're an employer is that H-2A workers are only allowed to work for you.

SORRELLS: And we have been 100 percent H-2A labor since that day. We were the first company in the state of Florida to utilize H-2A labor in citrus.

CHARLES: The first of many, though, foreign guest workers now pick most of Florida's oranges and grapefruit. And they're expanding into other crops, too. About 140,000 farm jobs nationwide were filled by H-2A workers last year, almost double the number four years ago. All around the citrus-growing areas of South Florida, you now see old converted school buses on the roads. These are company buses carrying H-2A workers. And in the evening, some of those buses roll into a truck stop on a two-lane country road south of the town of LaBelle. The young men scramble out, trot into the store, line up at the taco counter. This is where I met Esteban Gonzalez from the Mexican state of Veracruz. I spoke to him through a translator.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: They don't have a lot of work over in his area, Veracruz. So that's the reason they're here.

CHARLES: Here, he's earning $10.70 an hour and more if he works fast. Gonzalez has been doing this every year for the past eight years. He lives in a housing compound behind this truck stop in one of 30 identical yellow houses. In the back of the house, there's a room where 10 workers sleep. A couple of mattresses are lying on the floor. In the front, there's a kitchen, but the gas stove doesn't work, and the refrigerator barely does.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: They got to finish that milk today. If not, it's going to go bad.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Laughter).

CHARLES: The buses take them to the citrus groves in the morning and back here again in the evening with a stop on the way for some food. It's an austere life, but Gonzalez says he's really only here to work. In fact, his main complaint is there's not enough work. There's a disease called citrus greening, which has cut into Florida's harvest.

ESTEBAN GONZALEZ: (Through interpreter) Last year and this one, they've been very difficult.

CHARLES: Today, for instance, they were assigned to pick one section of a grove, and it only took three hours, so he only earned about $30. That's happened a lot, he says, and he does feel a little trapped. This is one of the biggest criticisms of the guest worker program, that these workers are not free to look around for other work. They can choose not to come back next year, but this year, they're stuck with the employer who brought them here. And Philip Martin, an economist at the University of California, Davis, says that freedom to find a better deal has been really important for regular farm workers who are here permanently.

PHILIP MARTIN: The biggest thing that has helped farm workers has not been unions, maybe labor laws somewhat, but it's been cell phones because they can call each other and say, this guy's paying a little more per bin than over there, and workers can move.

CHARLES: Martin thinks the number of H-2A workers will keep growing. He thinks it's already about 10 percent of the agricultural workforce, and it could reach 20 percent, even though employers are required to hire so-called domestic workers first. So increasingly, the country's food will be harvested by these two groups, foreign and domestic workers working side-by-side but living very different lives. Now many of the domestic workers also came here from other countries. It's estimated that about half of them are in the U.S. illegally. And it's actually hard to say who's better off, the H-2A worker or the undocumented domestic worker.

JAIME: (Through interpreter) Yes, my name is Jaime. I am an agricultural worker. I picked citrus for over 15 years.

CHARLES: He switched to other crops this year, though, partly because of the impact of citrus greening.

JAIME: (Speaking Spanish).

CHARLES: "I get to decide how much I'll work," he says, "where I'll work. And I have a life here. I'm here with my family." He pulls out his smartphone and plays me a recording of his daughter practicing for a presentation at school. This daughter was born here. She's a citizen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL: My ultimate goal is to become a pediatrician. I like helping people out whether it's dedicating my free hours to help out in the community, at my church and helping to tutor younger students after school.

CHARLES: But another aspect of his life is fear, enough fear that he did not want me to use his last name. He and a couple of his other children are not here legally. On the H-2A side of this divide, Esteban Gonzalez from Veracruz says he'd rather be here legally.

GONZALEZ: (Through interpreter) Just to have the papers, it's better to be legal.

CHARLES: He pulls out his passport. There is a visa, proof that he belongs here. Gonzalez has a family, too. That family is a big reason why he is here.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: He's got one of his kids in the university, and the other one's going to school. And he at least makes the payment for next semester for his daughter or for his son in the university. At least he's providing for them.

CHARLES: I asked each of these workers, which of you has the better life? And each one said, I think I do. But each one also said what he'd really like is to be here legally and also have the freedom to choose his own job. Dan Charles, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.