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Blacklisted for Speaking Up: How California Farmworkers Fighting Abuses Are Vulnerable to Retaliation

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colorful illustration shows farmworkers working between rows of grape vines under a blistering hot sun
What's it like for immigrant farmworkers to report an unfair labor practice in California? Labor rights advocates say laborers with H-2A visas are vulnerable to retaliation not just from their employers but from recruiters that connect them to jobs in the future. (Anna Vignet/KQED)

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pair of boots, shirts and pants.

That’s what Samuel left in the room he shared with other field workers at Mauritson Farms in Healdsburg, in the heart of Sonoma County’s wine country, last October.

He was heading back to his family in his hometown in Oaxaca, Mexico. The harvest had ended and his H-2A visa would soon expire.

He started working at Mauritson Farms in 2019 with an H-2A visa, which lets agricultural workers stay in the U.S. for limited periods of time. The program was modeled off the Bracero Program, which was created in 1942, thanks to an agreement between the U.S. and Mexican governments that brought Mexican workers to American farms. Labor rights groups point out that many of those braceros experienced wage theft, physical abuse and terrible working and living conditions.

Through the H-2A program, Samuel and a group of other young men from towns and rural communities in and around the Sola de Vega district in Oaxaca have come to California for years — from February through October — to work at Mauritson Farms, which owns and controls the vineyards that produce Mauritson Wines.

He left his belongings in Healdsburg with plans to come back in 2022. But he was never rehired by Mauritson Farms.

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At the end of the 2021 growing season, Samuel and five other workers from Oaxaca spoke up against what they believed to be unfair and unsafe working conditions they had experienced for the past three years. They said they were asked to work on extremely hot days without adequate protections against the heat, that hours of their pay were docked for unjustified reasons and that they suffered verbal abuse from the foreman who supervised them.

With the support of the labor rights group North Bay Jobs With Justice, the group of six workers met with Cameron Mauritson, manager of the vineyard, in October to explain what they were experiencing.

“He apologized to us and said he was really sorry that this had happened at his company,” said Kevin, who also was at the meeting and worked alongside Samuel for the same period of time. “He promised that he would hire us again.”

For Samuel and Kevin — whose real names KQED is not using due to their fears of employment loss — this promise represented a lot more than a job offer for the next year. It signaled that the group could feel comfortable speaking out against unsafe working conditions and that Mauritson wouldn’t do what they feared the most: retaliate against them by not hiring them again.

“We left our things [at Mauritson Farms] believing we would come back,” Samuel said. “But none of it was true.”

A grapevine in a field. The grapes are ripe and ready to pick.
Samuel and Kevin started coming to California in 2019 with H-2A visas. They would come in February and leave at the end of the grape harvest season in October. They now wait in their hometowns in Oaxaca to hear what an ALRB investigation finds. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Out of the six workers who met with Mauritson in October, none was called back to work in 2022, despite their completion of an application with Cierto Global, the company’s third-party recruiter service. Both Samuel and Kevin believe they were not rehired because they told management about unsafe working conditions they were experiencing in Mauritson's vineyards, a right protected by California labor standards.

North Bay Jobs With Justice representatives said they have reached out to Mauritson several times since February without receiving a response. Mauritson also declined KQED’s request for an interview.

On February 7, North Bay Jobs With Justice filed an unfair labor practice charge on behalf of the six workers with the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB), the state agency that investigates possible workplace abuses in the agricultural industry. The charge states that Mauritson Farms discriminated against the workers by “refusing to rehire them because they engaged in protected concerted activity.”

As the ALRB investigation moves forward, Samuel and Kevin spend their days taking on whatever work they can get in Oaxaca and looking for different farming jobs in the U.S., but with little luck. The window to receive an H-2A visa this year has closed, so they must look for jobs that don’t offer visas. With their remaining savings depleted and families to feed, time is running out to make enough money to survive.

California, home to the country’s largest agriculture sector, also has the nation’s third-most H-2A workers. Last year, more than 32,000 H-2A laborers from around the world worked in the state supporting the agriculture industry. And even though California has an extensive system of agencies and regulations meant to protect these workers, H-2A immigrants are still extremely vulnerable to illegal retaliation by their employers.

To bring foreign workers to the U.S., many H-2A employers use a network of both formal and informal recruiters that operate both inside and outside the country. Workers like Samuel and Kevin depend on these recruiters to find jobs in the U.S. and navigate the visa application process.

But when a worker speaks up about illegal labor practices, advocates say these recruiters often make sure the worker is blacklisted across the industry — making it harder for these laborers to find another job in the U.S. and for agricultural industry and labor agencies, who only have jurisdiction in the U.S., to enforce anti-retaliation rules.

Rows of grapevines in a field. In the background, a worker can be seen picking grapes.
More than 4,200 laborers from around the world come to work in California with an H-2A visa. Most of them are employed in the agricultural industry. While these workers are protected by the same labor laws as anybody else, labor advocates say they are especially vulnerable to retaliation if they speak up against what they consider to be unfair or unsafe labor practices. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

'Employers do retaliate' even though it's illegal

Cynthia Rice has worked as a labor rights attorney for over 20 years. She’s now the director of litigation, advocacy and training at California Rural Legal Assistance, a nonprofit law firm that provides free legal aid across the state. She’s represented dozens of agricultural workers in cases involving dangerous working conditions, wage theft and retaliation.

At the start of each conversation with a new client, she makes one point clear.

“Retaliation is illegal,” she said, while adding that, “we never say the employer can't retaliate against you because of course the employer can retaliate against you. It’s just illegal and employers do retaliate.”

Thanks to decades of farmworker- and immigrant-led organizing, California has several agencies that enforce labor laws, including anti-retaliation rules. The ALRB was created after then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act in 1975, which guaranteed collective bargaining rights for farmworkers. Additionally, the California Labor Commissioner’s Office investigates underpaid or missing wages, and the California Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board (Cal/OSHA) enforces workplace safety rules like heat protections for outdoor workers.

At the federal level, the Department of Labor processes job orders for the H-2A program and enforces employment contracts and the federal laws meant to protect guest workers. The department’s Wage and Hour Division investigates cases where employers may not be paying their workers properly or failing to provide housing, transportation or meals, which is required by the federal government.

Many immigrant farmworkers Rice has worked with come to her after they’ve been terminated or when they’re about to go back to their home countries after the harvest season. “Then they talk about the hours that were shaved or the meals and restrooms that they didn't get,” she explained.

But waiting until the end of harvest season to file a claim with the ALRB or other labor agencies is usually too late, she said, particularly for H-2A workers who typically have to leave the U.S. soon after. It gives attorneys like Rice very limited time to collect evidence and testimony before the worker heads back to their home country, which usually complicates communication as many H-2A holders come from rural communities in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, with limited access to the internet and telephone reception.

So why wait until the very last moment to speak up?

Retaliation can mean losing your job (and with that, your H-2A visa) after speaking up, but it can also include intimidation or punishment. Samuel remembers when his crew was working the fields in temperatures exceeding 95 degrees. “There were times where we felt so dehydrated that we were going to pass out,” he said. “We felt we wanted to vomit.”

When he’d tell the foreman how he and others were feeling, Samuel said the foreman would laugh at them and tell them to keep working. Kevin said that there were many hot days where the workers didn’t have any of the heat protections required by California law. “When it was 90, 95 degrees, we didn’t have any shady spots to have a glass of water or rest for a bit,” he said.

When outside temperatures exceed 80 degrees, Cal/OSHA requires employers to provide their workers with sufficient water, shade and rest. That means each employee should be able to drink at least one quart of water per hour and request breaks in the shade whenever they feel the need to. But a 2021 NPR investigation found that even with these protections in place, nearly four dozen California workers died from heatstroke and other heat-related illnesses within a 10-year period.

Cal/OSHA has stated that heat-related deaths can be prevented, but the agency has struggled with understaffing for years, making it harder for it to enforce its rules across California’s thousands of farms. So in many cases, the responsibility of protecting workers from heat falls solely on the employer.

A network of retaliation in the US — and abroad

A 2020 report by the migrant rights group Centro de los Derechos del Migrante shows that it's common for H-2A employers nationwide to intimidate workers to exert greater control over them and prevent them from feeling safe enough to speak up while they’re employed. Out of 100 former H-2A workers the organization spoke to, 100% of them experienced at least one serious legal violation and 94% experienced three or more serious legal violations.

Rice from CRLA points out that H-2A employers have an incredible amount of control over workers. An employer must provide housing, meals and transportation to and from the work site. Because many workers don’t have a U.S. driver’s license or their own vehicle, they also depend on their bosses for transportation to go grocery shopping, to receive medical care and for other essential activities.

“A worker who is experiencing bad working conditions can always vote with his or her feet, right?” Rice said. “Well, that's not true for H-2A workers.”

“The program is really closer to a kind of indentured servitude that we had in prior decades under sharecropper relationships post-emancipation,” she added. “There is such a dependency that the worker has on the employer and you can't really say that they're free to engage in activity anywhere else.”

Abusive employers can exert control over workers even when they are no longer living in the U.S. In order to find employees, many H-2A employers depend on third-party recruiters that operate all over the world. The recruitment process is rife with abuse, as some recruiters charge workers exorbitant amounts to connect them with American companies, some practice debt bondage and others mislead workers entirely about job opportunities. Additionally, a 2015 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that recruiters often blacklist any worker who speaks up about abuses to their employer.

These recruiters, which range from informal one-person operations to multinational corporations, usually work for several employers spread out across the U.S. So when recruiters blacklist a worker, they’re not just doing so for one employer but potentially for whole sectors of the agriculture industry.

Rice has seen this happen several times with clients who spoke up about an employer in one state, only to later have trouble finding a job in other states.

“The first thing that the employer does once a worker has complained about wages or working conditions,” she said, “is go back to the recruiter and say, ‘I don't want to hire this guy next year because they complained about me,’ and that affects not only recruitment for that particular employer, but also for all of the employers that a recruiter has a relationship with.”

Even when workers have returned to their countries of origin, the possibility of being blacklisted still exists. In the 2015 GAO report, federal officials traveled to Mexico to talk to former H-2A workers and noted that laborers were concerned about being seen talking to U.S. investigators in their hometowns because “people walking by could possibly see and report them to the local recruiter.”

The United Farm Workers union, which operates nationwide, also has noticed this phenomenon. Elizabeth Strater, director of strategic campaigns with the UFW, said many Jamaican H-2A workers in the U.S. will stick it out with a bad employer for a whole year just to stay within the recruitment pool for the next year. “There is also a tremendous amount of control over access to those visas [exerted by recruiters] within the communities of origin,” she said.

When Mauritson Farms first hired their crew in 2019, Samuel and Kevin say that the company arranged the recruitment process directly, using WhatsApp to coordinate. But in 2022, the vineyard switched to using a third-party recruiter, Cierto Global, a multinational farm labor contractor that was dubbed an “ethical recruiter” by the Biden administration earlier this year.

But Samuel and Kevin still worry that they now will have a much harder time finding a job in agriculture in the U.S. “I think [Mauritson] didn’t want any more problems to come up for them anymore,” Kevin said, “so they brought on the recruiter to be more selective.”

Regulating the recruiter network

How can labor officials prevent retaliation by American companies against H-2A workers if it happens outside the U.S.?

The GAO report points out that because recruitment happens outside the U.S., there’s very little federal oversight. Although the Department of Homeland Security keeps track of every incoming H-2A immigrant, there's no federal database that tracks which agents are recruiting them.

State agencies like California’s ALRB, which is currently investigating the Mauritson case, also have a hard time enforcing anti-retaliation laws in these situations. Regional director Jessica Arciniega shared that these types of situations are difficult for her agency due to jurisdictional limitations, but in certain cases, this sort of retaliation can fit into an ongoing unfair labor practice investigation.

“If there is evidence that the recruiter was an agent of the employer, then it may be part of something that we investigate,” she said.

At the federal level, Department of Labor officials are constrained by their jurisdiction. “Our enforcement authority is just in the United States. We can't regulate what these third-party recruiters are doing, let's just say, in Mexico,” said Ruben Lugo, regional enforcement coordinator.

However, Lugo explains, if a group of workers reported a breach of contract to the Department of Labor by their employer, and the following year none of the workers who were cooperating with the investigation were rehired, “then we can clearly discern that these workers were retaliated [against].”

In this situation, the federal government can order the employer to rehire the affected workers. In cases involving wage theft, officials also can require companies to pay back what they owe workers, along with civil penalties. For repeat offenders, authorities can even remove an employer from the H-2A program.

But at the end of the day, these consequences apply only for agriculture companies in the U.S., not recruiters abroad. In 2018, over 90% of H-2A workers were from Mexico and the 2018 GOA report shows that the recruiter network operates extensively throughout that country.

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Migrant worker advocates argue that the Mexican government, along with the governments of other countries H-2A immigrants travel from, should be more proactive about regulating the activities of these recruiters and educating workers on what their labor rights are before they leave for the U.S.

But Mexican officials KQED spoke to pushed back, arguing that isn’t the responsibility of the Mexican government — despite millions of dollars flowing back to Mexico each year as remittances from Mexican nationals working for the U.S. agriculture industry.

“H-2A visas are not part of a binational program,” said Remedios Gómez Arnau, consul general of Mexico in San Francisco. The Mexican government has no part in the hiring process and only plays a role through its consular system once Mexican nationals are in American territory, she added.

“Once somebody leaves Mexico and enters another country using a visa, then that’s when we can figure out here if the national approaches a consulate and tells us what their issue is,” she said. “But before that, Mexican authorities don’t know who is being hired by who.”

A group of people protest outside an office building. Many are holding signs, one says in Spanish, "Pago extra por peligros" or "hazard pay" in English.
Farmworkers and organizers with the labor rights group North Bay Jobs With Justice picket outside the Department of Emergency Management of Sonoma County on June 9, 2022. A coalition of workers and organizers have pushed Sonoma County officials for months to put into place five safety standards, meant to protect workers as wildfires intensify due to climate change, including hazard pay for farm laborers who work in wildfire evacuation zones. (Courtesy of Derek Knowles)

'The way we protect workers must change'

Samuel and Kevin don’t regret speaking up.

“We’re acting within our rights,” Samuel said. “It’s not just one worker who spoke up but many.”

For the team at North Bay Jobs With Justice who have been working with this group of workers since last year, this case could set a precedent for the fight to protect farmworkers in wine country and the rest of California against retaliation and unsafe labor practices.

If the ALRB finds that Mauritson did retaliate against its workers, that could encourage other workers across the region to report their own experiences to labor officials, said Ana Salgado, community co-chair of the NBJWJ board. That could potentially fuel the movement for greater worker protections ahead of wildfire season.

A coalition of worker advocacy groups, including NBJWJ, have pushed Sonoma County officials for months to put into place five safety standards meant to protect workers as wildfires intensify due to climate change. These include providing safety and fire evacuation training in the workers’ first languages, including Indigenous languages, and allowing independent community observers to assess the safety of workers out in the field, so that workers are not alone when they report unsafe conditions.

“The Earth is changing, and the way we protect workers must change as well,” said Salgado in Spanish.

A group of people play the drums outside of an office building.
Protesters gathered outside the Department of Emergency Management of Sonoma County on June 9, 2022, to demand greater protections for farmworkers before the onset of wildfire season. Organizers point out that climate change will only worsen in the coming years and insist that officials expand labor regulations to better protect workers as global temperatures increase. (Courtesy of Derek Knowles)

Beyond Sonoma County, migrant rights advocates also are proposing structural reforms to the H-2A program to hold both employers and recruiters accountable for retaliation. Centro de los Derechos del Migrante has recommended that Congress approve legislation that reforms the recruitment process and ensures that workers who have suffered a labor rights violation in the U.S. can still access legal services once they’ve left the country. They’re also encouraging federal agencies, including the Department of Labor, to create a database accessible to workers that keeps track of H-2A employers and their recruiters.

Cynthia Rice, attorney with the CRLA, points out a loophole in the existing accountability mechanism for H-2A employers: When a worker sues their company for an illegal labor practice, that company can settle the lawsuit and avoid admitting they violated labor law.

“Because there has not been any admission of liability or wrongdoing, that employer can get another H-2A order the next year,” Rice said. If federal officials took into consideration which companies are settling lawsuits year after year when it decides which ones get to stay in the H-2A program, it could prevent employers who don’t protect their workers from staying.

Reforming the program isn’t just necessary to better protect H-2A workers, Rice said, but also would benefit American workers. When H-2A workers are more vulnerable to retaliation, that makes them more attractive to hire, since employers know they can exploit them without having to fear the same consequences they’d face in hiring Americans.

While he waits to hear the ALRB’s decision, Kevin has been sharing everything he’s learned in the past year with friends who are considering working in the U.S. He doesn’t want others to go through the same things he did.

“We were happy with the job we had over there because it gave us the economic means to send money back to our families and save for a home or a business,” he said. But he added that doesn’t justify how he was treated: “We felt awful with the abuse we received, so we set out to learn what the employer actually needs to do.”

This story has been updated.

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