H-2A Agricultural Guestworker Program:

Changes Could Improve Services to Employers and Better Protect Workers

T-HEHS-98-200: Published: Jun 24, 1998. Publicly Released: Jun 24, 1998.

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GAO discussed the ability of the H-2A agricultural guestworker program to meet the needs of the agricultural industry both today and in the event of sudden and widespread farm labor shortages, focusing on the: (1) likelihood of a widespread agricultural labor shortage and its impact on the need for nonimmigrant guestworkers; and (2) H-2A program's ability to meet the needs of agricultural workers while protecting domestic and foreign agricultural workers, both at present and if a significant number of nonimmigrant guestworkers is needed in the future.

GAO noted that: (1) a sudden widespread farm labor shortage requiring the importation of large numbers of foreign workers is unlikely to occur in the near future; (2) there appears to be no national agricultural labor shortage now, but localized labor shortages may exist for specific crops or geographical areas; (3) although many farmworkers are not legally authorized to work in the United States, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) does not expect its enforcement activities to significantly reduce the aggregate supply of farmworkers; (4) INS expects limited impact from its enforcement activities because of the prevalence of fraudulently documented farmworkers and INS' competing enforcement priorities; (5) in fiscal year (FY) 1996, less than 5 percent of the 4,600 INS worksite enforcement efforts were directed at agricultural workplaces; (6) INS conducts enforcement efforts largely in response to complaints, and it receives few complaints about agricultural employers; (7) INS officials stated that operational impediments prevented the agency from significantly reducing the number of unauthorized farmworkers; (8) the prevalence of unauthorized and fraudulently documented farmworkers does, however, leave individual growers vulnerable to sudden labor shortages if INS does target its enforcement efforts on their establishments; (9) although few agricultural employers seek workers through the H-2A program, those that do are generally successful in obtaining foreign agricultural workers on both a regular and an emergency basis; (10) during FY 1996 and the first 9 months of FY 1997, the Department of Labor approved 99 percent of all H-2A applications; (11) however, both employers and Labor officials have difficulty meeting timeframes specified by law and regulation; (12) because Labor does not collect key program management information, it is unable to determine the extent and cause of missed timeframes; (13) the multiple agencies and levels of government implementing the program may result in confusion for both employers and workers; (14) while INS enforcement efforts are unlikely to create a significant increase in demand for H-2A workers, GAO has recommended changes in program operations that could improve the ability of growers to obtain workers when needed--whether or not a nationwide labor shortage exists--and better protect the wages and working conditions of both domestic and foreign workers; and (15) these include reducing both the time required to process applications and the period of time the worker must be employed to qualify for a wage guarantee.

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