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Bitter Harvest

Alex Stonehill Jul 25, 2007

Bitter Harvest
Photo: Alex Stonehill

By Sarah Stuteville and Alex Stonehill

YAKIMA, Washington— Wisit Kampilo’s sparse black hair ruffles in a biting gust of wind. Standing in a patch of dry yellow grass off a remote road in the Yakima Valley, he pulls a secondhand Oakland Raiders bomber jacket around his thin frame and looks back at the dingy threebedroom manufactured home where he and 32 other Thai guest workers were housed together in the fall of 2004.

A few last moments of the day’s patchy sun glint off the rusted chrome of a now-faded orange school bus that was used to transport him and his fellow workers to and from the surrounding apple orchards — the same orchards where Kampilo once believed he’d earn enough in two years of hard work and steady American wages to help lift his family, left back home in the rice paddies of northern Thailand, out of subsistence farming.

Like 120,000 other “unskilled” laborers temporarily brought into this country under H-2A (for agriculture) and H-2B (for other jobs) visas each year, Kampilo was romanced by the guest worker program, which is touted as providing a flexible, legalized foreign workforce to fill tough jobs that domestic workers don’t seem to want. The program has proved popular: A recent New York Times/CBS News poll reported that two-thirds of the population supports an expanded national guest worker program.

“The recruiter said if you work hard, you can make $8.50 an hour. They told us we would have 28 months of work in America,” says Kampilo, recalling the promises made by a Thai recruiter who visited the village of Lampang in 2004 on behalf of a Californiabased labor contracting company called Global Horizons. Kampilo, who at the time was making about $50 a month farming rice, did the math and decided to go to the U.S.

But there was a catch: The recruiter, working for a Thai company contracted by Global Horizons, demanded an $11,000 fee from Kampilo, saying that the money would in part be put toward transportation and housing in the United States once he arrived there. The workers would also be expected to pay an additional $3,000 fee when they began their second year of work.

It was a daunting sum to a Thai farmer, but Kampilo figured he would gross almost $40,000 over the course of the contract. To raise the fee, he and his family decided to mortgage his father’s land and home. With the money he thought would eventually come to him, Kampilo hoped to pay back the loan, buy some land, and send his two sons to school.

Three years later, that land is still in hock, with monthly interest payments of $150 bearing down on his family back in Lampang. While in the States, Kampilo claims he was paid only $7 an hour and lived in substandard conditions, with his documents confiscated and movements strictly controlled.

Kampilo says that after just four months — at which point he had earned $4,500 — Global Horizons representatives announced that the apple work had dried up and that he and his fellow guest workers would be sent to Hawaii, where there was purportedly another harvest. But the Thai workers were only ferried 15 miles up the interstate to a Yakima motel room before the news was broken that some of them, including Kampilo, would be sent back to Thailand for what was referred to as “a visit.”

In the fall of 2005, Global Horizons flew Kampilo back to Washington State and put him up at a motel in Moses Lake, where the waiting continued. After another week without work, Kampilo says he feared he would suddenly be sent back to Thailand again and fled, penniless and paperless, to the only people within a hundred miles who spoke his language: a Southeast Asian community in Eastern Washington where he hoped someone could help him find the work he desperately needed.

AN IMPERFECT SOLUTION

To some, this may sound like the hard-luck story of a naive foreigner. But variations of Kampilo’s saga were allegedly experienced by 193 other Thai workers who have joined in a federal class-action lawsuit against Global Horizons and the orchards that contracted with the company. Kampilo’s story is also echoed in accounts of abuse of guest workers across the nation, from the seafood processing plants of Virginia to the perilous forests of Northern California.

While 75 percent of guest workers are Mexican, Asian workers, like the Thais brought to Eastern Washington by Global Horizons, are recruited for the guest worker program as well. Coming from countries with little economic opportunity, they are drawn to the comparatively high U.S. wages; a stint in America can potentially catapult a poor farmer in Central Mexico or Northern Thailand into a new economic class back home.

Despite this, human rights groups are arguing that the guest worker program, with its lack of oversight, checkered history and bigbusiness benefits, could be laying the groundwork for exploitation on a national scale. “We have talked to thousands and thousands of guest workers over the years,” says Mary Bauer, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, whose recent report on guest worker abuses is edging its way into the debate, “and what we see in real practice, in the real world, is that guest worker programs are abusive and exploitative. Before we expand this program, we really need to look at it.”

Nevertheless, many lawmakers in Washington, D.C., are convinced that any comprehensive immigration reform bill must include a significant expansion of the guest worker program. And while the most recent immigration bill (which included a provision adding hundreds of thousands of new guest workers) stalled in the Senate, many still view guest workers as the only viable solution for the country’s shortage of legal low-wage labor.

But 3,000 miles away in the orchards of the Yakima Valley, labor and immigration rights activists denounce the guest worker program as a return to the infamous bracero program of the 1950s, while farm owners defend it as an imperfect but inevitable solution for a floundering industry caught in a web of corporate food-distribution monopolies, cheap foreign imports, and the post-September 11 politics that threaten its traditional labor source.

THE LOW-WAGE ADDICTION

Piles of apple crates climb toward the wide, hazy sky as laborers perched on stepladders prune back orchards that run up against I-82, the stretch of road that connects the communities of the Yakima Valley. Block-lettered signs announce the names of local growing companies at every curve in the road, among hills that fold like weathered suede in the distance.

Desperate Arkies and Okies fleeing the dust bowl found work here in the orchards and fields of the Yakima Valley in the 1930s. Waves of Mexican workers followed in the 1940s and ’50s, living in tent towns and picking for pennies as “braceros,” members of a World War II–era guest worker program plagued by abuses so egregious, the Department of Labor officer in charge of the program eventually described it as “legalized slavery.”

Today the same work is still done mostly by Latinos, some of them legal residents who have been here for decades, but the majority of whom are undocumented.

“This is an industry that is addicted to lowwage labor and always has been,” says longtime labor activist Tomás Villanueva, who came to Washington as a farm laborer in the 1940s. “It has always been argued that farmworkers should be excluded from labor regulations because it’s too expensive. Why should farmworkers be the ones to carry the burden of the survival of agriculture?”

And survival is just what many Washington fruit growers talk about when they defend their participation in the guest worker program. Valicoff Farms co-owner Rob Valicoff, who owns about 1,500 acres of fruit trees in the area, started using guest workers last year. He says he plans to use even more this season because of a lack of loyalty among the locally available workforce.

“Domestic workers are not committed,” says Valicoff, sitting in an office overlooking the floor of his packing plant, where rows of rosy Washington apples come out of cold storage through an intricate series of conveyor belts surveyed by hair-netted Latino women. “They work hard, don’t get me wrong, but last year they would get on their cell phones and figure out where the best pay was—and some would leave.”

Valicoff claims that he has lost tens of thousands of dollars in the past few years due to lack of consistent labor at crucial harvest times, and that rising wages increased his expenses by 20 percent last year. He says he watched sensitive crops like cherries and apples go unpicked as workers freely roamed from orchard to orchard in search of higher pay.

But, he says, such labor mobility can basically be solved through the use of guest workers. “The guest workers… aren’t allowed to go anywhere,” says Valicoff. “They have a contract with us and we have one with them. If they leave, it’s our responsibility to inform ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement, formerly INS]. That’s why the guest worker program works.”

DON’T ASK, DON’T TELL

While complaints of disloyal workers and bidding wars for scarce labor are among the first justifications growers present as steering them toward the guest worker program, other, more politicized issues quickly surface.

The unspoken rule that had guided this codependent economy for years was “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and a black market forforged documents has long flourished in central Washington, where undocumented workers can, for a couple hundred dollars, provide their temporary employers with Social Security numbers for payroll taxes. But for many employers, using illegal labor in a post-September 11 climate has become too much of a liability as promises of border crackdowns, rumors of intensified ICE raids, and proposals for extensive electronic document verification make their way up and down the valley.

While tabulating how many Yakima Valley farm laborers are undocumented is at best a guessing game, most estimates agree that more than half of the valley’s 30,000 workers are illegal.

Mike Gempler, head of the Washington Growers League, says that growers simply see the writing on the wall and are responding preemptively. “Right now, you can sneak into the country and get fake documents for a few hundred dollars, but if immigration reform gets to the point where [there’s] increased control of U.S. borders and employment documents, I think you’ll see rapid growth in the use of the guest worker programs.”

LOOKING FOR AMERICAN WORKERS

The forged documents, the imported workers, the unpicked fruit on trees all beg the question: What about American laborers? Don’t they have a role in the great farming tradition that put places like Yakima on the map? The simple answer is no. The complicated reason for that answer is rooted in the same consolidation, corporatization and transnational race to the bottom that have affected almost every American industry in recent years.

Frustrated by the simplistic rhetoric regarding labor shortages, Gempler decided to perform an experiment last season: He advertised extensively for American citizens to work during peak harvesting times — particularly on right-wing talk-radio stations that accused undocumented immigrants and guest worker programs of stealing honest American jobs. At the end of his advertising blitz, he says just 40 interested workers applied for the 90,000- some jobs available statewide during peak harvesting season.

At a time when English-speaking American citizens can start at $10 an hour in a service job, Gempler’s experiment showed that it’s difficult to get them excited about hard farm labor that doesn’t always pay much more, a plight made all the more unappealing when steady employment can only be guaranteed for three or four months at a time.

But growers claim that wages in their industry can’t increase freely on the labor market to the $16–$18-plus per hour that Valicoff says domestic workers were demanding last season, for instance. Growers say they are competing in a global market, where cheap foreign-grown fruit constantly threatens them and large corporate food distributors set buying prices so low that they are forced to pass the losses on to labor.

“We have a limit on how much we can pay our workers,” Gempler says. “And, in the short term, we just have to get the jobs filled.”

The American farm, some growers say, is already in danger of moving to China. And many in Washington State have been horrified in recent years by images of apple orchards up the Yakima River in Wenatchee being bulldozed as cheap foreign imports flood local supermarkets.

But labor and immigrant rights groups are unconvinced by growers’ claims that their hands are tied, saying there would be plenty of labor available if wages and conditions were fair. They argue that Big Agriculture is just looking for a way to essentially import the overseas sweatshops that other American industries have used for years.

The Yakima Valley has experienced massive farm consolidation in recent decades. Even with his 60 guest workers, packing plant, new pickup truck and dreams to build an expensive resort on a portion of his 1,500 acres, Valicoff only qualifies as a medium-sized grower in the area. His operation is dwarfed by megafarms in the region, some of which have put in for hundreds of guest workers this year.

“They say small growers can’t afford [to pay higher wages]. But really, you’re talking about corporations — not small growers,” says Villanueva. “They put the few small growers forward because they look good. But the big fish has been eating the little fish around here for years.”

DRIVING DOWN DOMESTIC WAGES

The huge empty sky above a dirt field on the outskirts of Sunnyside is slowly turning from black to the deep blue of early dawn. The halogen lights of an adjacent Wal-Mart parking lot buzz and flicker off while white noise from the interstate muffles the scattered Spanish conversations of 30 workers, who are busy plucking new shoots of bright green asparagus.

“My family and I made $23,000 last year,” says Erasto Garcia, a permanent legal resident born in Mexico who has worked in the fields of Central Washington for 22 years. “But before unemployment, we only made $17,000.”

Garcia smiles grimly, displaying a row of false teeth, and shakes his head when asked to corroborate grower claims of labor shortages and bidding wars driving up wages. “Just last week we were weeding garlic. We got two bucks a row, but at the end of the day, it only came out to $3 an hour. The prices for asparagus have been almost the same since 1985. Ask anybody on the street here, and you’ll get the same answers.”

Despite the hard work, low wages and vulnerability, Garcia says he wants the work and feels threatened by rumors of new guest worker regulations. “It will affect us because right now, for example, there’s no work,” he says. “If they bring in guest workers, we will be working even less, and I’m sure it will drive the wages down as well.”

The current H-2A program tries to take these concerns into account, requiring that all guest workers are paid the adverse wage rate — about a dollar or two per hour above minimum wage — which is meant to prevent the lowering of wages.

“We just hope businesses are being honest .”

While many supporters of temporary visa programs hope that a legal way to bring foreigners into the country will prevent the abuses commonly experienced by undocumented laborers, others argue that, in a climate where even legal workers such as Garcia are unprotected, guest workers will be even more defenseless.

Laws protecting H-2A workers in the current program do exist, and amount to a relatively progressive bill of rights (especially compared to slack protections for nonagricultural H-2B workers). H-2A workers are guaranteed at least three-fourths of a 40-hour week, free housing, workers’ comp, reimbursement of travel costs, and protection under the same health and safety regulations as other workers. But the problem, according to many advocates, isn’t what exists on paper — but that it only exists on paper.

Much of what Kampilo and his fellow Thai workers allegedly suffered was illegal, such as inadequate housing, forced isolation, insufficient hours of work, and unlawful deduction of income tax. But there were no realistic means for workers to report the abuses and have them investigated without fleeing the situation entirely, as Kampilo did. Were it not for an informational card given to him by a legal-aid firm soon after his arrival in the U.S., he may have never realized he had any means by which to lodge a complaint at all.

In the case of Kampilo and the other Thai workers, the chief strategic officer for Global Horizons, Mordechai Orian, claims that the Department of Labor and other local government agencies in charge of the guest worker process seemed unclear on the processes themselves.

“Nobody came to us and said, ‘Oh, you need a license,’” says Orian, who says he and his company shouldn’t be held responsible for the Thai workers’ claims of abuse. “The way I heard about it was an inspector came to… one of our farms and said, ‘You know what? Global Horizons doesn’t have a license.’ I called [the inspector] and said, ‘I talked to a girl in your office, and she said she doesn’t know if I even need a license because I already got the approval for the H-2As [from the federal Department of Labor].’”

This kind of “he said, she said” thwarts attempts to sort out accountability for guest workers. Moreover, lack of communication and unclear jurisdictional lines among agencies concerning responsibility for various aspects of the guest worker program may also contribute to various abuses.

“We have a voluntary process where we just hope that businesses are being honest and forthright with us,” says Reuel Paradis, Yakima regional administrator for the state Department of Labor and Industries, which is responsible for overseeing workers’ comp, minimum-wage enforcement and other health and safety aspects for guest workers. “But people can operate for a pretty long time before they boil up to the surface. Somebody needs to throw some resources at this if they want to stop the disconnect that exists between agencies.”

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the DOL has investigated only a fraction of the 6,700 businesses across the country certified to employ H-2A workers. It also cites a case in which repeated requests by legal services for investigations into alleged abuses were ignored until the twoyear statute of limitations on complaints, set by the DOL, already had expired.

Some of the worst abuses Kampilo suffered were due not to explicit violations of the law but instead to exploitation of legal loopholes. For instance, the recruiting fee that continues to financially squeeze Kampilo’s family was imposed by a Thai company, which is beholden only to Thai law. Global Horizons, which subcontracted its guest worker recruiting in Thailand, says the company had a clean bill of health from both the U.S. and Thai governments, and claims it had no knowledge of such a fee and cannot be held responsible for corruption in other countries.

Kampilo also complains of having been promised a number of things verbally by recruiters and then signing contracts that were not in Thai. Global Horizons denies this, saying that all contracts were in Thai as well as English. But here again emerges a shadowy corner of the law, where it becomes difficult to prove that workers fully understand the contracts they are signing. What is more, Kampilo claims that upon his arrival in the United States, all of his paperwork and documents, including his passport, were taken by people working for Global Horizons.

“They said they would take care of them for me so I wouldn’t lose them,” says Kampilo, who relinquished the documents because he’d been asked to do so in past tours as a guest worker in Saudi Arabia and Taiwan and assumed that it was legal. Holding workers’ documents is not illegal, as long as they can request them back at any time, but guest workers like Kampilo typically are not aware of such laws.

Such absolute control over workers gets to the heart of the issue for many of the program’s critics, a dynamic that can lead to extreme situations such as those allegedly experienced by Kampilo, who claims that his movements were surveilled and limited by people hired by Global Horizons — even outside of working hours. Kampilo says they were strongly discouraged from leaving their cramped house in Buena, a neglected community where abandoned, graffiti-laden buildings outnumber services. Occasionally they visited a lake directly across from their house to fish for food, but Kampilo says he and fellow workers felt they would get in trouble or jeopardize their employment if they disobeyed Global’s request that they stay on the property.

A FEW BAD APPLES

In the Yakima Valley, most everyone agrees that the vast majority of growers are decent employers who don’t want to play a part in any abuses. “Like anything, there [are] always a few bad apples in the box, but there’s not that many of us,” says Valicoff. “As an industry, I believe we’ve learned from [the Global Horizons] case. We have a real incentive to do things right. The agriculture industry needs the H-2A program; therefore, growers will do the right thing.”

But others say that the history of guest workers in America and current rates of abuse have shown otherwise, arguing that any program that allows employers to decide whether or not workers are deported is unethical.

“The power dynamic is just fundamentally skewed,” says Bauer. “If we need more workers, we should bring them in as human beings, not just as people who are hidden somewhere, living in barracks, being abused and exploited, and then told to go home. They aren’t just disposable.”

The immigration reform bill that died in Senate last month contained a new guest worker program that would bring 200,000 laborers into the country each year to do nonagricultural work on a new Y visa, closely modeled after the existing H-2A and H-2B programs.

That same bill also addressed agricultural labor issues through a package of legislation called AgJOBS, which has been touted as simultaneously creating a path to legalization for undocumented agricultural workers who make a commitment to staying in the industry and streamlining the H- 2A process to make it easier for growers to get guest workers.

This legislation is sponsored by some of the most liberal politicians in Washington, D.C., including Ted Kennedy and Barbara Boxer (as well as Republicans like Larry Craig of Idaho and Utah’s Chris Cannon), who have promised to try to pass it on its own despite the failure of the larger immigration reform bill. Moreover, AgJOBS has the support of a broad coalition of growers’ associations, labor groups and immigrantrights advocates, and is hailed as a compromise between the typically polarized interests of farm employers and labor.

But AgJOBS does virtually nothing to address the problems of guest workers, create a workable plan for enforcement of existing protections, or suggest investigation of the existing system before it is streamlined and expanded. If AgJOBS becomes law, it looks as if the guest workers of tomorrow may be the big losers in the immigration reform movement of today.

WALIT KAMPILO

While border security is tightened, immigration reform continues to be debated, and the big agriculture outfits around Yakima blossom, Kampilo is without work, languishing in Eastern Washington halfway around the world from home.

Anxious to help his family dig themselves out of debt, but unable to legally work, Kampilo is living off the kindness of other Thai immigrants in the area. He spends most of his days in a local Buddhist temple or doing odd jobs in the community while he waits for a decision in his class-action lawsuit against Global Horizons. The case is currently in arbitration, and Kampilo hopes it will be settled in his favor by the fall, with Global held responsible for reimbursing his recruitment fees. If not, or if Global declares bankruptcy in the face of the numerous other lawsuits and fines pending against the company, he’ll be forced to return to Lampang with nothing.

“I’m sad and angry; I wish I could work to pay off the loan or bring my family here,” says Kampilo, who says he misses his family but is too ashamed to return emptyhanded. “I have to wait for the lawsuit to be over. I can’t go back home without any money again.”

This article first appeared in the Seattle Weekly. Sarah Stuteville and Alex Stonehill are co-founders of the Common Language Project (clpmag.org). Stuteville has been a contributing writer for The Indypendent since 2002.