Two large Georgia farms agreed to pay their former laborers tens of thousands of dollars in recent months to settle federal lawsuits alleging they cheated them out of wages and discriminated against them in favor of workers from Mexico.
At the heart of the lawsuits is a federal guest worker program with a troubled history in Georgia’s $71.1 billion agricultural industry, the state’s largest. Two other large Georgia farms are facing similar federal lawsuits involving the H-2A program, which allows the hiring of foreign laborers to work temporarily in jobs such as picking produce. One of them is now seeking a settlement. And a fifth agreed to pay $500,000 to its workers and their attorneys to settle a federal complaint two years ago.
Critics say the H-2A program displaces U.S. workers and exploits foreign laborers. Georgia farmers don’t like the program much either, complaining it is full of red tape that makes them vulnerable to frivolous lawsuits.
Observers say the answer is to scrap — or at least revamp — the program. The American Farm Bureau Federation and the Georgia Farm Bureau have come out in support of bipartisan Senate legislation that would replace the H-2A program with a new visa program and strengthen protections for farmworkers. But that legislation is now stalled amid opposition from conservatives. A separate GOP-sponsored measure has stalled in the House.