Claims of systemic abuse are the major reason why many oppose the expansion of guest worker visa programs like the H-2A for low‐skilled seasonal agricultural workers. If migrant workers face less dangerous working conditions, that would be evidence that H-2A workers are not systemically abused. If, on the other hand, they face more dangerous working conditions then that would be evidence that claims of abuse are exaggerated, at least when it comes to dangerous working conditions.
On the issue whether H-2A workers work in dangerous conditions, we can look at data on the number of fatal injuries by nativity and occupation to see whether there’s any obvious evidence that foreign‐born workers are abused. Unfortunately, we don’t have data on the injuries and fatalities of workers on the H-2 visa (I asked the Department of Labor) so this brief and simple analysis merely analyzes the top‐line fatality rates of all foreign‐born workers by occupation compared to all native‐born workers by occupation.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries catalogues all occupational deaths in the United States by occupation, ethnicity, race, nativity, and other characteristics. I then use those deaths‐on‐the‐job numbers to calculate the death rate per 100,000 workers using data on the labor force from the Current Population Survey’s Annual Social and Economic Supplement (CPS ASEC). This post focuses on workers in the occupation of crop production because over 90% of H-2A workers in 2018 worked in crop production and H-2A workers comprised about 71% of all workers in that occupation in 2018. Thus, looking at injuries in this occupational category could reveal better whether H-2A workers face systemically more dangerous working conditions.
In 2018, 36 foreign‐born workers and 214 native‐born American workers died working in crop production. According to the ASEC, there were 342,703 foreign‐born workers and 908,169 native‐born workers working in crop production in 2018 (Table 1). Thus, the fatal injury rate for foreign‐born workers in crop production was 11 per 100,000 foreign‐born workers. For native‐born workers, the fatality rate was 24 per 100,000 native‐born workers. In other words, the fatal injury rate for foreign‐born workers was less than half that of native‐born American workers in the same occupation. These data aren’t available for 2019.
Narrowing down to the fatality rate for Hispanic foreign‐born workers in crop production is more precise as about 90% of the H-2A workers are Mexican and many of the rest are from other Spanish speaking countries. Their fatality rate in 2018 was 10 per 100,000 Hispanic foreign‐born workers, and it was 9.4 per 100,000 Hispanic foreign‐born workers in 2019. Although we do not have the data on the number of H-2A workers who have died on the job, the available evidence suggests that they have a much lower death rate than native‐born American workers. If workers are taken advantage of by unscrupulous employers who use the H-2A visa regulations to their advantage, it doesn’t show up in a higher fatal injury rate.
States have very different shares of H-2A workers as a share of total farm employment, ranging from 24.6 percent in Georgia in 2018 to 1.9 percent in New York in the same year. The fatality rates of foreign‐born workers in states with high concentrations of H-2A workers could help focus this analysis on H-2A fatalities specifically. However, the number of H-2A visa workers hired in states with the highest share of H-2A visa workers in farm employment is still small. As a result, the fatalities data record zero fatalities in almost all cases and the CPS ASEC data on employment is spotty too and we can’t use the state data to get a better view.
These findings are not completely inconsistent with the existing literature. Dillender and McInerney (2020) found that Mexican immigration can explain 26 percent of the improvements in occupational risk among natives between 1980 and 2015 with effects concentrated among native workers with a high school degree or some college education. In other words, Mexican immigrants sorted themselves into more dangerous jobs and natives into less dangerous jobs. But my finding above show that migrant workers in the one occupation of crop production are less likely to die on the job. Other research shows that migrant farm workers didn’t have much knowledge about protective equipment and procedures.
In the language of labor economics, workplace safety procedures and equipment are non‐pecuniary compensation. Employers pay wages roughly equal to the marginal value product (MVP) of the worker. From the employer perspective, that payment can take the form of wages or other non‐pecuniary forms of compensation such as subsidized insurance, meals, lodging, or safer working conditions. These forms of non‐pecuniary compensation still cost money and so increase the cost to an employer of employing the worker, but since workers can’t profitably or sustainably be paid above their MVP, there is a tradeoff among all of these types of compensation. In essence, workers and employers have a choice of the mix of the types of compensation and some may choose more safety and lower pay while others will choose less safety and higher pay.
There are many reasons to do further research. Perhaps, employers supply safer working conditions to H-2 workers because too many deaths or injuries will get them excluded from the program. Perhaps the number of deaths on the job are too few to come to a convincing statistical answer. Perhaps migrants who get injured on the job and who eventually die from those injuries are not as likely to be counted, either because they return to their home countries and die there or they are more susceptible to long‐term illnesses from their jobs. Adding a further wrinkle, controlling for the habits of migrant farm workers might produce very different results.
Regardless of the above and whether better research will answer whether H-2A workers face more dangerous working conditions, the H-2A visa should be deregulated as much as possible to allow individual migrants to change jobs without losing their visas, having to ask their employers for permission, having to find a new employer before leaving, or any other legal barriers. H-2A workers should be as free as a native‐born American to quit their jobs or change their employers without legal consequences. People who complain about the harm supposedly visited upon H-2A workers should be able to agree with that even if we can’t agree or come to a conclusion about the facts.
– Alex Nowrasteh, Cato Institute