H-2A Agricultural Guestworker Program:

Experiences of Individual Vidalia Onion Growers

HEHS-98-236R: Published: Sep 10, 1998. Publicly Released: Sep 14, 1998.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on the recent experiences of individual onion growers in the proximity of Vidalia, Georgia, focusing on: (1) the experience of these growers with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), the Department of Labor H-2A Agricultural Guestworker Program, and the Georgia State Employment Service; (2) the wages, benefits, and working and living conditions offered to prospective domestic and H-2A workers; (3) recruitment efforts proposed and conducted regarding domestic and H-2A workers; and (4) whether the information obtained for this review is consistent with the information GAO reported in December 1997.

GAO noted that: (1) in response to earlier INS warnings that it was planning to target illegal farmworkers in the Vidalia onion producing area of Georgia, growers filed an application for H-2A workers in February 1998 with Labor and the Georgia State Employment Service; (2) however, the growers GAO spoke with told it that they dropped this application because they believed the program was too costly and left them vulnerable to lawsuits from labor advocates; (3) because growers had withdrawn their application and INS officials believed that growers were employing many workers unauthorized to work in the United States, INS conducted an enforcement action in the Vidalia, Georgia, area in May 1998, during the height of the onion harvest; (4) growers had not known that, in the event of an unexpected shortage of workers such as that caused by the INS enforcement action, Labor could certify an H-2A emergency application quickly by waiving the requirement that growers apply 60 days before the date workers were needed; (5) the wages and benefits growers offered to domestic workers differed from those that would have been required had the growers hired workers under the H-2A program; (6) under the H-2A program, the growers would have been prohibited from charging a maintenance fee and would have had to provide housing to all workers--both H-2A and domestic--who lived too far from the worksite to commute; (7) if the growers had pursued their application to bring in workers from outside the United States through the H-2A program, their efforts to recruit domestic workers would have had to be more extensive than they were for the 1998 harvest; (8) Labor had accepted the growers' plan for how they would first actively recruit domestic workers before obtaining H-2A workers; (9) this plan included the provision that growers use farm labor contractors and pay them a reasonable fee of $8 per worker for their services; (10) because the growers dropped their H-2A application early in the process, however, the recruitment plan was never used, and the growers relied on their traditional recruitment strategy; (11) the growers GAO spoke with did not attempt to recruit workers directly from onion-growing regions in Texas because they considered the recruitment fees to be too high, although officials at Texas farm labor employment agencies GAO interviewed contend they had large numbers of workers available; and (12) the information GAO obtained during this review is consistent with the information it reported in December 1997.

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