One of the unforeseen impacts of the coronavirus pandemic has been the labor shortages experienced across multiple industries in the United States, from the retail and food and beverage sectors, to leisure and hospitality, including various segments of the agricultural industry.

A deeper look at the issue reveals that the agricultural labor shortage in particular is a result of longer-term issues that have been plaguing our food supply and distribution system for years, before COVID-19 made its appearance on the world stage. 

Joe Martinez
Joe Martinez

The pandemic-related shortages revealed to consumers in the U.S. that we are all more integrated with the global economy than most of us realize. And our food system is dependent upon temporary and seasonal migrant farmworkers — and is becoming more so with each passing year.

As growers know, migrant farmworkers are integral to the process of growing produce in the West, and particularly in the U.S., and will continue to be so as we maintain and increase agricultural production to feed our families and the world.

According to the International Labour Organization, in 2019 there were 169 million migrant workers in the world, constituting 4.9 percent of the global labor force in destination countries. In the United States alone, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in 2020, 2.6 million farmworkers came to the United States; 1.1 million of these workers are undocumented. 

These undocumented workers have largely arrived here through what are euphemistically referred to as “informal networks.” These networks typically operate in the dark and are rife with corruption. 

At the same time, a smaller number of workers — just over 275,000 in 2020 — arrived through the H-2A guest worker program. This program was intended to allow workers to legally migrate to the U.S. for seasonal and temporary work, and to provide some of the oversight that would prevent the human trafficking, sexual abuse, debt slavery and other issues that had flourished in its absence. 

A quick primer on H-2A

Created in 1986 as a sort of last resort to help fill jobs for which American producers could not find American workers, H-2A allows migrant guest workers to come to the U.S. legally for temporary or seasonal work. To qualify for the program, growers must:

—Offer a temporary or seasonal job.

—Demonstrate that not enough U.S. workers are able, willing, qualified and available to do the temporary work.

—Show that employing H-2A workers will not adversely affect the wages and working conditions of similarly employed U.S. workers.

—Submit a single, valid, temporary labor certification from the U.S. Department of Labor with the H-2A petition. 

There’s more to the list, but you get the picture. Besides recruiting, hiring and training workers, you’re interfacing with the federal government, navigating customs, filling out reams of paperwork, and so forth. All this in addition to the daily rigors of running your farm.

Each year since 2014, the H-2A program has grown significantly. In 2022, the program is expected to provide close to 350,000 workers to farms in the U.S.

And, as we mentioned earlier, this necessity isn’t just a result of the pandemic. Over the past decade or so, the American domestic workforce has rapidly aged out of this labor pool, making it a challenge to secure a reliable workforce and to ensure stability and safety in our food supply chain.

In short, H-2A is no longer a last-ditch method of fulfilling labor needs but has increasingly become the first and best option to fill these critical jobs.

The increase in H-2A visas indicates our recognition of these facts:

1) Our dependence on migrant labor is growing.

2) Labor abuses — often driven by conditions of recruitment — are a real threat to grower profits.

3) In order to protect our farmers and workers, and to safeguard the food economy, we need to impose more control and transparency on the process.

Ethical recruitment points to a path forward

As H-2A volume increases, the Department of Labor uncovers more and more rules violations each year. Even when growers participate in the program, their workers can still be recruited through dangerous informal networks.

This problem is widely acknowledged, but it’s hard to solve. Despite such industry efforts as the Ethical Charter on Responsible Labor Practices and responsible recruitment toolkits, problems do persist. Tools like these function as guides for oversight and transparency once an H-2A worker is in the United States. 

But the large, informal recruiting networks tend to operate essentially without restraint within countries of origin, like Mexico, Guatemala and elsewhere in the Global South. 

This allows hidden fraud to take root. Even when growers and retailers do the right thing, like performing audits, workers can still be subject to hidden abuses, like extortion for jobs, human trafficking and slavery. When we decide to look the other way, these informal networks are unexamined and essentially unregulated, leaving them free to abuse workers who are simply trying to improve their lives.

This is where responsible recruitment models could make a powerful impact: by demonstrating compliance with laws and regulations within the United States; working ethically and transparently with the governments of countries of origin; and by complying with international standards and principles such as the International Labour Organization’s conventions 182 and 38, which help ensure we keep children safe. 

With transparent, ethical processes in place to safeguard workers, starting in their communities of origin and stretching all the way to their destinations at farms in North America, a program of responsible recruitment could significantly increase the efficacy of the H-2A program. 

Clean recruiting will also make a real difference in workers’ lives and help to ensure the stability of our food supply labor force and, hence, our food supply chain. 

Data shows that the combination of H-2A compliance, adherence to labor laws and following responsible recruitment best practices is good business. At Cierto, we’ve found clean recruitment delivers significant productivity improvements, fully trained, knowledgeable workers and a reliable labor supply chain that persists season to season.

Labor shortage issues and food supply chain instability has not escaped the notice of major retailers like Walmart, Costco, McDonald’s and others. Retailers’ need for brand integrity has increasingly led these businesses to hold growers accountable for keeping their names out of the news. 

Violations of workers’ rights and welfare damage corporate images, so many of these companies are working to better understand the migrant labor forces we all depend on, and how retailers can work with growers to provide oversight and further secure our food supply. 

The future

The Biden-Harris administration also recognizes the need to further support the growth of responsible recruitment models. 

The H-2A program hasn’t seen real reform in over 36 years. This puts growers at risk, forced to participate in a system that wasn’t really designed for the role it currently fills, for the volume of migrant workers that pass through it, or for its need to accommodate even more people moving forward.

Bills to address these issues, such as the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, have bipartisan support but have stalled out in Congress, harming both growers and workers and damaging our agricultural economy. 

One of our mantras at Cierto goes like this: “It takes an ecosystem of entities working together to achieve ethical recruitment.” 

That means we need everyone at the table — from those giant retailers, to growers like you, to the governments of the nations at both ends of the labor supply chain. 

When all of us pitch in, we can eliminate issues like trafficking and slavery, make sure we have enough workers to safely produce the fresh food our families need, and achieve true food security for our children and our children’s children. 

by Joe Martinez

Joe Martinez is the co-founder and CEO of Cierto Global, a farm labor contractor assisting growers with the H-2A visa program by recruiting and training experienced farmworkers for jobs at U.S. farms. This column is based on a talk he gave at the Washington State Tree Fruit Association’s annual meeting in December. To learn more about Cierto’s H-2A services, go to: