Bitter Harvest: Guest worker program isn’t the labor and immigration panacea it’s cracked up to be

Winner of the 2008 Society of Professional Journalists Pacific Northwest Excellence in Journalism Award for Business Reporting and the 2008 Unity Award for Reporting of Economics. 

YAKIMA, Wash. – Wisit Kampilo’s sparse black hair ruffles in a gust of March 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 three-bedroom 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 provides 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 66 percent of the population supports an expanded national guest-worker program.

Photo by Alex Stonehill.
Photo by Alex Stonehill.

“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 California-based 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 United States.

But there was a catch: The recruiter, working for a Thai company contracted by Global Horizons, demanded an $11,000 fee from Kampilo, saying 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 “a visit.”

“Everybody was sad, and nobody knew what to do,” says Kampilo. “We were all too scared to leave, and some of us thought that maybe what Global Horizons was telling us was true and we would come back in one or two months and keep working.”

But that wouldn’t be the case. Over the next nine months, Kampilo and fellow workers repeatedly called the recruiting offices in Bangkok, only to be told, “Just one more week, then there will be work.”

Finally, 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.

Photo by Alex Stonehill.
Photo by Alex Stonehill.

To some, this may sound like the hard-luck story of a naive foreigner. But variations of Kampilo’s experience were reportedly shared 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 could 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 big-business 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-9/11 politics that threaten its traditional labor source.

Photo by Alex Stonehill.
Photo by Alex Stonehill.

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 Midwesterners 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 low-wage 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 Latina 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 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 wither on trees 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 . That’s why the guest-worker program works.”

Photo by Alex Stonehill.
Photo by Alex Stonehill.

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 for forged 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-9/11 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.

“Fifty to 80 percent of seasonal field workers are undocumented, so we’re very exposed in that sense,” says Mike Gempler, head of the Washington Growers League, who adds 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.”

Guest-worker programs also come with a surprising tax benefit: Foreigners and the companies that hire them aren’t required to pay income taxes and Social Security. Valicoff says the added costs of filing paperwork and transporting and housing guest workers are soon offset by savings on payroll taxes.

Photo by Alex Stonehill.
Photo by Alex Stonehill.

The forged documents, the imported workers, the fruit rotting 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 illegal 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 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 like Safeway and Fred Meyer set buying prices so low that they are forced to pass the losses on to labor.

While some growers, like Valicoff, have attempted to vertically integrate — packing, marketing, and delivering crops themselves to clients like Whole Foods — only a small portion of consumers can afford to shop at such stores. Outside of those high-end markets, food distributors are in the business of always keeping prices low, thus encouraging the high-volume sales that lead to big profits, even if it means artificially deflating the cost of products like Washington apples to the point where growers can only afford the artificially cheap labor of illegal immigrants or foreign guest workers.

Photo by Alex Stonehill.
Photo by Alex Stonehill.

Growers are price takers, not price setters, when it comes to food distributors these days, Gempler argues. “We have a limit on how much we can pay our workers,” he 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 ulldozed 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 generations. 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 . 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.”

Some small farms still exist in Eastern Washington, and a handful of those are trying to address some of the issues facing agriculture in their region by growing sustainable, diversified, organic produce through CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture programs) and smaller independent distributors. But it’s the larger growers — who focus on fruits like apples and cherries, with short, labor-intensive harvest seasons — who rely on large influxes of temporary workers.

“Our guys live here year-round,” says Guy Evans of Sunshine Farms in Chelan, a 95-acre farm striving to be a part of the sustainable-agriculture movement. “We maybe bring in seven extra guys for certain harvests, and we hire many of the same people year after year. If you treat labor well, and have a reputation for treating labor well, then you’ll have loyalty from your employees.”

Photo by Alex Stonehill.
Photo by Alex Stonehill.

Despite this movement, farms like Sunshine are the exception in a region where the economics of farming have changed dramatically in the past few generations. “It’s true that you can’t really get by as a grower around here on 100 acres anymore,” says Gempler. “This isn’t Little House on the Prairie.”

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.”

He admits that workers’ bargaining power increases during peak harvest times because of a sudden spike in demand, but maintains that even the fastest and most experienced pickers rarely bring in more than $100 a day. He adds that the seasonal influx of higher wages helps him subsidize the long winters of scarce work.

Garcia says he’s aware that laws exist to protect workers from many of the abuses he’s experienced, like insufficient bathroom facilities in the fields and employers misreporting hours when they’re paying piecework to make it look like workers have at least earned minimum wage. But Garcia claims that he and other workers don’t report such problems because they doubt anything would be done and fear reprisals from employers.

“We can tell people about these problems, but they either don’t listen to us or get angry,” Garcia says. “We are intimidated to complain because we’ve seen people be fired for it. We’re here because we just need the work.” To wit, just last month, Garcia witnessed blacklisting firsthand when one of his colleagues, who successfully championed a 4 cent increase in the per-pound price pickers got for asparagus last season, was not hired back this year.

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 driving down of wages, and by insisting that all potential guest-worker employers first advertise to domestic workers. But the means of effectively advertising in a way that reaches every potential domestic worker have yet to be defined (none of the workers spoken to for this story recalled ever encountering such advertising). And a group of Yakima Valley domestic workers are suing Global Horizons, arguing they were not offered the chance to accept the work before Global brought in Kampilo and other Thai workers.

Photo by Alex Stonehill.
Photo by Alex Stonehill.

But even if they were aware of these contracts, accepting those invitations for employment — even for domestic workers — means accepting terms that bind them to one employer for the entire season. This is an unappealing prospect for many workers, who want the freedom to follow the best-paying piecework during the harvest and feel that their only ability to bargain for higher wages and protect themselves from abuses comes from their freedom to leave.

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 like 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 reportedly 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 United States, he may never have realized he had any means by which to lodge a complaint at all.

“The protections that do exist under H-2A aren’t enforced and are unenforceable,” says the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Bauer, who worries that the imbalance of power between workers and employers in the H-2A program ensures abuse. “The situation now requires that someone make a complaint about how guest workers are being treated before anyone investigates. It is completely unreasonable to expect workers in these situations to know their rights and assert them. There are enormous obstacles to keep workers from doing that.”

Indeed, it does seem that cultural, linguistic and physical isolation, coupled with a dynamic where workers are contractually bound to one employer who has control over whether they are deported or invited back to work, may stifle the open airing of grievances. And while the complaint-driven process – as opposed to alternative enforcement strategies, like the creation of an ombudsman role at guest-worker sites – is a concern, some also cite a lack of organization, awareness or will among the government agencies administering the guest-worker programs.

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 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 .'”

e surface. Somebody needs to throw some resources at this if they want to stop the disconnect that exists between agencies.”

Peggy Abrahamson, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Labor, which is responsible for approving H-2A applications, says the DOL and related agencies have addressed abuse by revoking the licenses of offending labor contractors (Global Horizons’ license was revoked in Washington last summer, though it continues to operate in other states and is currently lobbying the governor for reinstatement in Washington). She also says that the DOL devotes a large percentage of its enforcement to non-complaint-driven investigations into low-wage industries, though she doesn’t specify how many of those investigations are devoted specifically to guest worker programs.

Despite Abrahamson’s assurances, the Southern Poverty Law Center reports that 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 two-year 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 the foggy expanses outside and between the laws. For instance, the recruiting fee that continues to financially squeeze Kampilo’s family was imposed by a Thai company named AACO International Recruitment Company Ltd., which is beholden only to Thai law. Global Horizons, which subcontracted its guest worker recruiting in Thailand to AACO, 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.

Some say that whether or not guest workers are admitted into the program should be contingent upon their understanding the nuances of certain regulations. But even if they are aware of the laws, labor advocates worry that guest workers may hesitate to speak up about violations to employers, upon whom they depend for their legal status in this country and who influence their prospects for future employment.

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 surveyed 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.

“We weren’t supposed to leave the house,” says Kampilo. “We could go outside, but we had to stay nearby. They had other workers come and check on us, and they called all the time to make sure that we were there. If we stayed away too long, they said they would send us back. I think they were afraid we would find better work at other companies.”

Accounts of disturbing practices crop up again and again in the guest worker testimonies compiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center, from Mexican tomato harvesters who were locked inside their trailer parks in Florida to Thais brought to New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina on cleanup crews, many of whom were housed in dilapidated hotels without potable water, guarded by a man with a gun, and not paid for their work.

Many of these stories involving confiscated documents, forced isolation, and false promises resemble human trafficking—a crime that the current administration has crusaded against as the slavery of our time almost as passionately as it’s promoted the guest worker program as the solution to America’s immigration problem.

Trafficking laws have the potential to help an abused guest worker like Kampilo. For instance, if a case against his abuser was picked up by the Department of Justice under criminal trafficking laws, Kampilo would have the chance of obtaining eventual citizenship. The U.S. attorney’s office in Eastern Washington refused to comment on whether or not such a case is being pursued in conjunction with Kampilo’s complaint. To date there has only been one well-publicized case—that of a group of Thais brought to work in North Carolina and Louisiana—where guest worker abuse was prosecuted as human trafficking.

“The line between the guest worker that pays the kind of money our clients pay to come here for jobs and conditions that aren’t what they were promised—it’s real close to trafficking,” says Bauer. “Basically what we see is that these visas are for sale overseas and that they often involve extreme coercion and fraud. I mean, sometimes the specific cases qualify under trafficking law, and sometimes they don’t—and it’s often very close.”

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 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 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.”

Last August, the United Farm Workers union and Global Horizons negotiated a contract for union representation of Global’s guest workers in the states where they are still authorized to operate. The agreement ensures a 2 percent raise above the mandatory adverse wage rate, health coverage (while workers are in the U.S.), work breaks, and bereavement leave. But national awareness of guest workers and the injustices many of them face has not risen to a point where labor contractors are pressured to negotiate such contracts on a wide scale, unless they are already facing serious labor-abuse allegations.

The immigration reform bill resurrected this week in the Senate contains 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 addresses 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, Dianne Feinstein, 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 if the larger immigration reform bill fails. Moreover, AgJOBS has the support of a broad coalition of growers’ associations, labor groups, and immigrant-rights advocates, and is hailed as a compromise between the typically polarized interests of farm employers and labor.

“We’ve had legislation legalizing undocumented workers that growers have been killing for years, and they’ve had H-2A reform legislation that we’ve been killing for years,” says Erik Nicholson, an organizer for United Farm Workers. “AgJOBS is a compromise by both sides recognizing that to get what we want, we have to give the other side what they want.”

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.

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. ( Seattle Weekly agreed to honor a request by Kampilo’s attorney to keep his precise whereabouts confidential.)

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 that it will be settled in his favor by this coming 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 empty-handed. “I have to wait for the lawsuit to be over. I can’t go back home without any money again.”

NOTE: This article was written for the Seattle Weekly.

UPDATE: September 3, 2010. The labor abuses exposed in this 2007 CLP article are now part of the largest federal indictment for human trafficking ever brought by federal authorities. Global Horizons President Mordechai Orian is facing prosecution. Thai guest worker Wisit Kampilo was granted a special visa for victims of human trafficking, and has settled permanently in Eastern Washington with his family. More at »

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