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Stanford University to study foreign agricultural worker program in WA

Stanford University to study foreign agricultural worker program in WA

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Yakima Herald-Republic

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Oct 24, 2022, by Jasper Kenzo Sundeen

Use of the H-2A program, where agricultural employers hire foreign workers seasonally when they cannot find enough local labor, has skyrocketed since the turn of the millennium. Yakima County had 8,000 such workers October 2021 and June 2022.

Researchers from Stanford University and the Washington Farm Labor Association, or WAFLA, recently announced a study to gather data on the program and inform policy.

“How does having the option to migrate and become and H-2A worker affect and H-2A worker and their families?” said Melanie Morten, an associate professor of economics at Stanford University. “Our goal is to provide empirical evidence — hard facts — about workers.”

The study will work with 1,600 workers over two years, Morten said. Half of those workers will be H-2A workers who will arrive in the U.S. to work in the first year. The other 800 will be workers who do not come to the U.S. immediately and instead stay in Mexico. Morten said they will act as a control group.

Researchers will conduct three interviews with subjects — once before leaving Mexico, once while working in the U.S. and once after returning to Mexico.

The focus of the study is on qualitative data about poverty alleviation. Morten also hopes to gather evidence on patterns of migration between Mexico and the U.S.

In 45- to 60-minute interviews, researchers will ask questions about income, wages, food security, children’s outcomes and working conditions. Interviewers will be researchers or professional enumerators, according to Morten. Subjects will be paid.

They will then compare the results between workers who stay in Mexico and those who work in the U.S. Morten said the study is significant because of the use of a control.

“There’s a lot of research about H-2A workers. What’s going to be novel about this study is it’s the first to use a control group,” she said.

Researchers recently completed a pilot study testing their methodology.

Stanford and WAFLA had a relationship that predated the study, said WAFLA CEO Enrique Gastelum. WAFLA, a nonprofit agricultural association, has helped employers hire H-2A workers since 2007.

“We connect growers with professional recruitment firms,” Gastelum said. “We make sure they’re abiding by the laws.”

Employers are required to provide H-2A workers with housing, transportation and, to a certain extent, meals. Gastelum said WAFLA facilitates those activities and will coordinate with H-2A recruiters in Mexico to help researchers find subjects for the study.

Gastelum hopes to learn more about the benefits, as well as areas where WAFLA might improve. He added that many in the agricultural industry are curious about the impacts of the H-2A program.

H-2A has been in place since 1986 and has been occasionally controversial. The program could see reforms if the proposed Farm Workforce Modernization Act becomes law.

Workers’ advocates have argued that the pay structure can be flawed. In a lawsuit last year, lawyers form Columbia Legal Services argued that the U.S. Department of Labor had left out key data when calculating H-2A workers’ pay, lowering their wages.

Morten said that researchers will remain independent when conducting the study. She hopes to publish results in Spanish for a wider audience.

“This evidence might be really valuable to people who are understanding policy debates,” she said.

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