WASHINGTON — While more than 10 percent of North Carolinians are jobless, thousands of farm jobs that pay more than the minimum wage are being filled by immigrants, most of them from Mexico, in a temporary work program.
This year alone, North Carolina farmers were granted permission to hire 8,547 temporary foreign agricultural workers, by far the most of any state. This represents more than 10 percent of the state’s agricultural work force, according to the Employment Security Commission of North Carolina.
The jobs, which pay $9.30 to $9.59 an hour, must first be advertised to Americans before foreign workers with temporary agriculture work permits can be hired to fill them.
This has sparked a debate as to why these jobs are being filled by temporary immigrant workers during severe unemployment.
“I don’t care if you pay them $20 an hour, you are not going to get them out here to do this type of work,” Wilson Daughtry, a vegetable farmer in Engelhard, N.C., said of U.S. workers.
Farm worker advocate groups say some employers seek to import labor because of the structure of the visa program and because the relatively high pay makes the foreign workers inclined to endure tougher work conditions.
“Many workers do not want these jobs at these wages and on these terms,” said Mary Bauer, legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center and the author of Close to Slavery, a report alleging abuses of the visa program. But “if you can’t find workers at the wage you want to pay, then lo and behold, there’s this program you can use that allows you to go find people from another country who will desperately want to make a job at $7 or $8 an hour.”
Lee Wicker, a tobacco farmer and the deputy director of North Carolina Growers Association, said, “This is a misconception, to say that farmers prefer foreign workers. We don’t. We just want workers that are going to come and stay and help us” plant, grow, and harvest crops.
The North Carolina Growers Association is largely responsible for the proliferation of the temporary agricultural work visas in North Carolina. From July, 2010, through June, the association was certified to use about 7,000 foreign workers.
Typically, foreign workers contract directly with one farmer for the growing season and can work only for that employer. But farms that are members of the North Carolina Growers Association pool resources, splitting the fixed costs of employing workers with the visas while sharing the labor force, because different crops require labor at different times.