In the summer of 2018, I worked as a migrant outreach worker with Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, a non-profit that provides free and low-cost legal services to marginalized populations. This entailed driving around rural Ohio to meet with the migrant and seasonal farmworkers who come to work in the state every summer. Some of these people live and work in the United States, following the crops throughout the year. Others are H-2A workers, coming from other countries to work on U.S. farms with a seasonal and temporary H-2A visa.
As someone who has lived in Ohio for most of her life, I felt like I had entered a hidden world, an Ohio that existed right alongside my Ohio and yet was entirely distinct from it. The experience left me with a number of questions, many of them fundamentally geographic in nature. Some of them were mundane: How do these workers get to the grocery store? How do the rural communities where they live accommodate the seasonal presence of non-English speakers? What happens if an H-2A worker gets sick? Others were more philosophical: Do the H-2A workers develop a sense of belonging or connection to place when they’re here temporarily? If you worked in Ohio for 8 months out of the year and only spent 4 months in Mexico, which place was home?
I entered the PhD program knowing I was curious about these workers and more specifically, how this kind of guestworker program impacts their health. I understood from my training as an outreach worker that while all agricultural workers are considered a vulnerable population, the H-2A experience was fundamentally different from that of other migrant and seasonal farmworkers. For example, US-based farmworkers often travel with their families, while H-2A workers must leave their loved ones at home. Most migrant and seasonal farmworkers, even undocumented ones, are covered under the Agricultural Workers Protection Act, but the law does not extend to H-2A workers. On the other hand, H-2A workers are paid more and their housing is provided, free of charge, by their employers. However, their visa is tied directly to their employer, making them particularly vulnerable to exploitation and poor working conditions.
The social determinants of health, which has established that health outcomes are profoundly influenced by the conditions in which people live, would indicate that given these differences, H-2A workers’ health would be different than that of other migrant and seasonal farmworkers. However, no research has been done to prove this empirically and perhaps more importantly, establish what the health needs and challenges of this population are.
My research focuses on filling in some of this basic information at the state level. I will be surveying H-2A workers in Ohio, gathering both the demographic information mentioned above and asking questions about their healthcare access, occupational health and safety, and recording self-reported measures of health. The end goal is to provide actionable data for the organizations and state agencies within Ohio that serve the H-2A population and advocate for their rights.
Because I’m only at the beginning of my research, I don’t have a satisfying conclusion to this blog post. I have exactly zero answers to the questions I posed above. What I can say, though, is that the questions are urgent, and relevant to all of us. The plants for sale in the Lowe’s nursery, the cucumbers I slice up for my daughter’s lunch, the blueberries you put on top of your granola, all of it was produced by a farmworker, and quite possibly an H-2A worker. Understanding and advocating for their health and safety is one step in creating a more just and sustainable food system for all.
PhD Candidate, Department of Geography