Dec 14, 2021Ag workers’s exemption from travel restrictions from South Africa sought
The American Farm Bureau Federation — along with more than 60 other agriculture groups – sent a letter Dec. 13 to the Biden administration requesting agricultural workers be exempted from travel restrictions from South Africa.
Late last month, the White House announced a proclamation that prohibits travel for individuals from several countries — including South Africa — due to concerns over the COVID-19 omicron variant.
The problem is, almost 7,000 guestworkers originate from South Africa, most of whom arrive in the U.S. in February, March and April. Many of these H-2A workers have a unique skillset, and farmers in Michigan and across the country are counting on their timely arrival as they make plans for their upcoming growing seasons.
“Many of these workers are operating the same or similar equipment in their home country as they will operate here,” said Craig Anderson, Michigan Farm Bureau (MFB) regulatory relations specialist.
“There is a ‘seventh sense’ developed only through experience operating the equipment allowing these operators to detect even minor changes in the process that, if not detected, could lead to devastating harvest results. Other workers are critical to the timely planting of many crops and the transportation of harvested crops to market. Most important are those actually harvesting crops. Without harvesters the food, feed, fiber and fuel will not be on the market.”
Sarah Black, general manager of Great Lakes Ag Labor Services – an ag labor agency for MFB members focused on H-2A or seasonal visas – said labor issues continue to be one of the top concerns on farms today.
“The workforce shortage is very real, and so use of the H-2A program continues to grow.”
The letter calls on the State Department and Department of Homeland Security to allow for “National Interest Exceptions” to H-2A workers coming to the United States as an exception to the travel restrictions and requests flexibility for another proclamation which limits entry into the U.S. to only those fully vaccinated with a CDC-approved vaccine –with limited exceptions.
“Protecting our food supply is a matter of national security,” Black added.
“Getting a National Interest Exception for these workers from South Africa is extremely important, as these workers and any food and agricultural workers already have the essential worker pandemic designation.”
The letter from ag groups says imposing travel ban leads to added transportation costs that do not achieve COVID mitigation goals, instead calling for farmers, H-2A workers and federal officials to “work together to allow workers taking appropriate health and safety precautions to travel to the United States directly from their home countries.”
The letter also calls for allowing workers to travel directly to the United States to be vaccinated with a CDC-approved vaccine.
“While protecting our nation from new variants of COVID-19 is critically important, it is in our national interest to ensure production of food, fuel and fiber,” the letter continues.
“Considering the severe supply chain disruptions taking place, losing access to key employees who originate from these countries because of travel restrictions would further limit agriculture’s ability to grow safe and nutritious food.”
Read the full letter here.