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  • Jahdea Clare

The Reality of the H2A Farmworker Program: the Jamaican experience

By Jahdea Clare

The H2A farm worker program has been running for decades to fill American farms' labor gaps and shortages. Growing up in rural Jamaica, for many families, the dream of getting a “farm work card” is like a golden ticket for the men to travel abroad for an opportunity to build a better life. It really seemed to be a dream come true, but really only for the chance to earn more money for families back at home. We always heard stories of how hard it is to work overseas, especially on farms. To be on the other of the farmworker's lived experience, I now fully understand the reality of being a migrant farmworker in the US.

Jamaican farmworkers seasonally migrate to the US for better financial opportunities and where they get to experience a different culture while doing so. However, there are many hardships. Let’s weigh the benefits versus the costs of being a farmworker.

Most people who are not Americans have some idea of what the process behind the scenes of fresh supermarket produce entails. Yes, many migrant farmworkers are grateful for the ability to have secured a job in the US since the value of the dollar works out to be a lot more than they would make at home doing similar or even more technical jobs. Many farmworkers manage to build or buy homes in their home country, fund their children’s education, and take care of their extended families. The opportunity to leave one’s country and travel to another is a privilege for farmworkers in many ways. Being a farmworker in the US gives them status within their communities as in our culture - having the experience of a different culture brings growth and expansion on a personal level. Workers make connections in the US that sometimes develop into lasting lifelong relationships.

Nevertheless, the nature of the work entails a priceless toll. For the purposes of this article, the focus is on farmworkers’ deteriorating health. Health is not just physical. We should all know this but in the capitalist, white supremist world we live in, human welfare is not a priority because that would mean compromising maximum profits, selfishness and national interests. On the physical side, the demand is long labor-intensive work hours. With only one day off a week, the men don’t get time to cook healthy and sturdy meals and they are often missing cultural foods which seriously impact their diets. Many are dealing with chronic health conditions like diabetes and hypertension - the importance of which is overlooked for many reasons ranging from ignorance about chronic health management and the power dynamic with employers. Due to the latter, they may not want to appear sick for fear of being booted out of the program.

Through my work with Bridges to Health, a migrant health program in Vermont, we have held onsite health clinics and found workers with chronic conditions they were unaware of. Some would want to continue working because that is why they are here and even their health is a distraction. Others are open to getting assistance with coordinating health appointments at local free clinics or Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs). Workers are typically hesitant to seek out care for fear of costs and feeling that they don’t have a right to. The systemic barriers to health care access for migrant workers are historical and reflected in policies and encounters of racism and discrimination.

Undeniably, many farmworkers live a life ridden with illness and injury later in life - the longer time served in the fields, the worse the health outcomes. In addition, they suffer extensive exposure to dust, pesticides and other harmful chemicals. While the program is an opportunity for people with scarce opportunities, it remains a system of forced labor, exploitation, and oppression. Only now, the labor isn't “free” but has been reformed to be more passively exploitative. Still, not much has changed with who benefits and who pays the price in the long run. Here are two of my recommendations for policy changes while we continue to do racial and social justice work: a clear benefits plan since workers pay social security and Medicaid taxes, and an immigration plan where family members are given visas to visit or a path to residency for farmworkers after 10 years.

Jahdea Clare, she/her, was born and raised in Jamaica and moved to Vermont in 2020 at 25 years old. She has lived experience of the farmworker life with family members, friends and community members who have and still are in the farmworker program in the US and Canada. She is currently a community health worker with Bridges to Health, a migrant health program in Vermont, since 2022.

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