The practice of bringing in temporary guest workers dates back to the World War II era, when a labor shortage made the program essential to sustain struggling American farms. Today's H-2A program, created under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, operates to ensure growers an adequate labor pool. It is used throughout the United States, with North Carolina and Georgia the country's most prolific users.
The H-2A program generally requires growers to enforce their own regulations governing wage rates, overtime, and work schedules, but some farmers see little incentive in honoring their contracts with foreign laborers. Advocates say non-immigrant workers are cowed into silence out of fear that they will lose their jobs (and their U.S. permanent residency status) if they complain about their wages or treatment. "Growers generally have not improved wages or working conditions in the agriculture industry and generally maintain very backward labor relations and practices," Goldstein says.
After Leach was denied employment by Bland Farms, she contacted Dawson Morton '95, an attorney with the Farmworker Division of the Georgia Legal Services Program (GLSP).
Morton instructed Leach to obtain the proper paperwork from the local employment office and return to the farm. Leach revisited Bland Farms and was grudgingly hired and allowed to work out the rest of the season. Leach was forced to work nine-hour days on her feet without any breaks. She received repeated reprimands from her employers for voicing displeasure with the difficult conditions. "They made it quite well known that if I wouldn't work the long hours … that I couldn't work," Leach said. "It caused me a lot of problems with my leg, standing up for nine hours straight."
Morton had seen such treatment before. In Georgia, laborers receive very few protections under state or federal law, he says. Agricultural producers are exempt from paying the state's $3.25 minimum wage and from a Georgia statute requiring that workers be given at least one day off per week. While the federal H-2A statute sets hour limits for laborers, "growers often fail to inform workers that they are free to stop after they've completed the required hours," Morton says.