One day in the coming years, David Griffith’s local pool of subjects for his research on agricultural migrant workers in the South might dwindle down to a handful – not enough for a true sampling.
The East Carolina University anthropology professor has studied the government’s H-2 program, the longest running guest-worker program in North America, for more than 25 years.
During his academic career, Griffith has studied rural labor processes and their national and international effects. He performed his doctoral research in Jamaica in the early 1980s and continues to make visits there, Mexico and Florida to document the changes.
In his new book, “American Guestworkers: Jamaicans and Mexicans in the U.S. Labor Market” (The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006), Griffith examines the effects of the H-2 program on the areas not only where the laborers work but also where they are from, and he considers the effects on the workers themselves.
The publication of his book is timely, even though the federal government first launched the H-2 program in 1943.
Currently, H-2 is the prototype for a new program, dubbed the AgJobs bill, sponsored in the U.S. Congress by Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Larry Craig (R-Idaho), to address the growing agricultural worker storage being experienced by American farmers. The bill would amend the current application process for agricultural workers and replace it with an expedited process to hire foreign workers in the H-2 category.
“The H-2 program starts out with the best intentions,” Griffith said. “They wanted to replace illegal immigration. However, there’s a lot of opportunity for corruption. Over time, it has become what it meant to replace.”
As examples, he cited workers paying inflated rent to their employers and a payroll deduction scheme that lasted for almost 50 years for many sugar cane farm workers in Florida. A deduction for an insurance policy at a rate of 2 percent of their $4,000 pay per season was taken out from 1943 to 1992.
“When I would ask them to explain the deduction shown on their check stubs, they would say ‘It’s McDonald’s.’ That was the name of the insurance company. Not one person told me that they knew how to make a claim or knew anyone who had made a claim,” Griffith said.
Another problem with the H-2 program, Griffith said, was that it would bind one worker to an individual employer. “It’s like indentured servitude,” he said.
“One thing in the AgJobs bill that is better is that documented workers can work for more than one employer,” he said.
Griffith pointed out that for the workers coming to America, it is hard work picking farm produce all day, often six days a week; however, the jobs pay more than in Mexico and Jamaica.
“The money goes back to help the family in Mexico or Jamaica. Today it’s mainly Mexicans coming to work in U.S. fields. At least 50 percent of the pay goes back,” he said. “They spend money on clothes and shoes to send back to their family.”
In North Carolina, most of the H-2 workers come to work in cucumber or tobacco fields or to pick thousands of crabs. In the winter, they help harvest acres of Christmas trees in the North Carolina mountains.