None of the 14 Hawaii farms that relied on a company charged with human trafficking are accused of doing anything wrong, but they face a predicament. Legislation that has been stalled in Congress is needed to revise the federal seasonal worker program to better provide farms with labor by foreign workers who can be offered improved conditions.
The farms had relied on Global Horizons Manpower of Los Angeles, which has been accused in federal court of abusing the present federal guest worker program, known as H-2A, in 2004 and 2005, in importing farm workers from Thailand. In a separate criminal case, brothers Mike and Alec Sou, owners of Aloun Farms on Oahu, are awaiting trial on charges related to their recruitment of Thai workers.
The farms that had depended on Global Horizons are likely to have difficulty finding U.S. residents to do the work, as many mainland farmers have experienced even during a period of high unemployment. The Bush administration may have regarded as helpful turning its eyes away from abuses of the H-2A program while lowering wage rates for the workers.
The Obama administration approved rules in February restoring the former wage formula, based on prevailing wages of farm workers, and adopted policies that have been praised by advocates of guest workers.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has re-introduced a bill aimed at reforming H-2A to provide farmers with a stable work force. It would create a five-year pilot program and make guest workers eligible for a "blue card" and eventually a "green card" to give them permanent legal U.S. resident status on the way to citizenship. It also would allow farms that are now required to provide housing for guest workers to instead provide a housing allowance if adequate rentals are available. That would provide sensible options for workers now forced to rely on farm employers for virtually all aspects of livelihood.
Hawaii farms increasingly have relied on guest workers to harvest their crops. Last year, 231 of 268 requests for guest workers were approved by the U.S. Labor Department to provide labor for Hawaii farms, up from 137 approvals in 2008. Small farms that have relied on Global Horizons to find foreign workers now must find another recruiting agency.
"A lot of our farmers are dependent on second and third parties to get their labor because they’re not large companies," Mae Nakahata, president of the Hawaii Farm Bureau, told the Star-Advertiser’s Gene Park.
They also may have to compete against mainland farms that have been unable to hire an adequate supply of workers and been forced to shut down. In 2007 and 2008, 1.56 million acres of farmland were shut down in the United States, according to Feinstein, who said California may lose $1.7 billion in sales this year because of reduction in farm products.
The Obama administration and Hawaii’s congressional delegation should seek ways to help the state’s farmers cope with what could be an emergency. Just as clear as that need for aid, however, is the need for responsibility on this end of the chain to stop the global problem of human trafficking. Farms may indeed be demanding cost-effective workers to help keep enterprises afloat — but supply must not come at the expense of the human dignity and rights of their workers.