For growers who find the H-2A foreign guest-worker program too daunting, hiring refugees might be a way to ease labor shortages.
World Relief is one of ten organization that contract with the U.S. Department of Labor to help refugees who come to the United States get settled and find jobs.
Mark Kadel, director of World Relief’s office in Spokane, Washington, said his organization works with growers to supply them with qualified and legal workers.
“They are here, and they are legal from the moment they step off the airplane, because they’ve been invited by our state department to become our new Americans,” he said during a recent work-force summit meeting presented by the Washington Farm Labor Association.
World Relief serves as a liaison between refugees and employers, at no charge to the employer. Refugees can work on a seasonal basis or full time. “You treat them like any other employee,” Kadel said.
No visas or sponsorships are necessary, and the refugees can work for the same wages and terms of employment as domestic workers. Dmitru Chaban, a former refugee now working as World Relief’s employment program manager in Spokane, said all that the refugees want is a job. “They don’t expect a lot.”
Kadel said there are 15.7 million refugees worldwide. Last year, the United States accepted 59,000 refugees into the country. The ceiling for the coming year is 75,000.
To qualify for entry into the United States, refugees must prove they have a well-founded fear of persecution in their home country. Most refugees would like to go back to the countries from which they fled, but after languishing for many years in refugee camps, this is not always possible.
Refugees go through three sets of strict interviews with the state department as well as security checks and medical screening. They cannot be admitted strictly for economic reasons. They also must come from designated countries. Many come from Southeast Asia, Africa, Iran, Afghanistan, former Soviet Union countries, or Cuba.
Kadel said most refugees hit the ground running. People from Asia usually know how to do agricultural work because they’ve been doing it all their lives. Some refugees are doctors or engineers who found themselves on the wrong side of the political equation and had to flee, but others are illiterate in their own language. Most are somewhere in between.
“They are here to stay,” Kadel said. “They get an employment authorization card the moment they step on U.S. soil. They’re good workers. They want the same thing we all want—they want a job to support their families and put their children in school for the first time in their lives. They want to start their lives over again.”
Since the refugees come from various countries, World Relief can’t always provide growers with large numbers of workers from the same ethnic group, but it does try to put together a team to suit the grower.
Jim Hazen, general manager at Broetje Orchards at Prescott, Washington, said his company has worked with World Relief’s Pasco office to recruit refugees over the past five years. A difficulty has been how to house them, as the company’s worker housing is fully occupied with a waiting list. Broetje has 1,000 full-time employees and needs an additional 1,000 to 1,500 workers during harvest. It has hired fewer than two dozen refugees each year.
“It’s more complicated than I think people realize because these people are displaced,” Hazen said. Some lived in urban areas in their own countries and some in rural areas, and he feels there’s a better chance of success if they can be placed where they’re most comfortable.
Hazen said Broetje is considering building additional on-site housing for refugee workers or building housing in Pasco, the nearest city. For workers in off-site housing, the company would provide transportation to the orchard.
“To have access to people who are interested and hungry for jobs, I think it’s a small investment to make in order to tap into that,” Hazen said.
Broetje has encouraged World Relief to contact the company when they have refugees who will be located in the Tri-Cities area and need work.
“We’ve let World Relief know that we will try to accommodate them as best we can, but it has to be a situation, we’ve learned, where the work needs to fit what they’re used to doing.”
Broetje has had refugees from Somalia in the past. The last couple of years they’ve been mainly from Burma. Language can be a barrier, Hazen said, but creative ways can be found to make it work.
A group of Burmese workers at the orchard, where the work force is primarily Hispanic, has been more interested in learning Spanish than English, he said. Hispanic supervisors are visiting the Burmese workers in their free time to help them learn Spanish.
Refugees can be hired as domestic workers by employers using the H-2A program, in which case they work under the H-2A contract. They can also work for labor contractors.
Contractor Jon Warling of Mar-Jon Labor, in Othello, Washington, said he used refugees for one grower, who had housing available and wanted to try the program. There are no strings attached like there are with the H-2A program, though it does require some additional supervision. There have been instances where the workers could not communicate with orchard supervisors—not because the refugees didn’t speak English, but because the supervisors spoke only Spanish.
Where the refugees don’t speak good English, it’s been difficult to identify someone among them who can act as an interpreter but also has supervisory skills, Warling said. “You have to work to find people to translate who aren’t scared to tell their fellow countrymen they’re not doing something right. Those who speak the best English don’t always make the best supervisors.”
Another labor contractor, Mike Atkinson, president of Atkinson Staffing in Hermiston, Oregon, said his experience with hiring refugees exceeded expectations. “I was apprehensive,” he said. “But I was surprised. They were from Sudan and spoke really good English.”
For more information about World Relief’s refugee program, contact Kadel at email@example.com, phone (509) 232-2814, or Chaban at firstname.lastname@example.org, phone (509) 232-2816.