A flood of South African agricultural workers are once again expected to arrive in the United States between February and April this year. This, after America’s Biden-Harris administration eased the Covid-19 travel restrictions that had American farmers nervous about their labour force for 2022. Recruitment plans for about 7 000 skilled workers from Mzansi are thus back on track.
With South African workers seemingly an in-demand commodity in the United States, the easing of travel restrictions against Southern African travellers was widely welcomed locally and by American farmers alike, says CV Placements’ Marieta Visagie.
CV Placements is one of several recruitment agencies that help South African labourers find work on US farms, and Visagie says farmers in the US rely heavily on the experience and skill of foreign workers.
“These workers are a critical need for the US agricultural sector, with farming classified as ‘essential services to support food security’ in the States.”
Nervousness around Omicron-related restrictions
Although placement of South Africans did continue after the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, related restrictions caused major disruptions from 2020 onwards, and the discovery of the Omicron variant and a new restriction had farmers and workers anxious about their employment plans for yet another year.
The restriction, entitled “A proclamation on suspension of entry as immigrants and non-immigrants of certain additional persons who pose a risk of transmitting coronavirus disease 2019”, was implemented on 26 November 2021, two days after South African scientists announced the discovery of Omicron.
“As farming activities cannot be put on hold, [every restriction] definitely affects farmers adversely,” Visagie says. “They try to make do with family members and other farm help, but there are not many skilled US workers prepared to work such long hours as the South African workers do.”
As a result, various US-based farming organisations announced their displeasure with the latest restriction, asking that agricultural workers hired under the H-2A visa programme be excluded from the proclamation.
In a letter to the administration of President Joe Biden, dated 13 December 2021, the American Farm Bureau Federation and more than 60 other agriculture groups listed workforce shortages among the reasons for the restriction to be lifted.
“Many of these H-2A workers have a unique skillset, and American farmers are counting on their timely arrival as they make plans for their upcoming growing seasons.”
“Considering this, the State Department and Department of Homeland Security must act quickly to ensure these valuable H-2A workers can arrive on time on American farms in the coming months,” the letter stated.
“With pressure from the US farming community, the H-2A visa holders were eventually issued the National Interest Exemption (NIE),” Visagie says. “[This] allowed [them] to travel to the US to take up their employment.”
Visagie says that despite the earlier travel restrictions, the company continued its usual work as it knew its workers were considered essential.
The US finally announced that it would lift its Covid-19 restrictions against Southern African travellers in the last days of 2021, and the easing came into effect on New Year’s Day.
South African workers in high demand
For Christo Gaybba, a South African agricultural worker employed in the US since June 2020, the travel restrictions made sense even though it limited workers from entering the country.
“They have to look after the health and safety of their own country. The Omicron variant was found in Southern Africa, [so] the United States [imposed] restrictions on South Africa to ensure that the Omicron variant doesn’t come to America and start a whole new pandemic, all over again.”
Gaybba started his farmworker journey in East Arkansas, but then moved to a grain farm near Nebraska City a few months later.
He says some of his South African colleagues had pre-empted restrictions and had asked to have their visas roll over so they do not miss the next season. “Some of my friends… had to ask for a rollover to stay the winter because they were scared that they would not be able to come back early enough in the 2022 season to start working.”
Gaybba explains that, with the previous year’s restrictions, there had been many South African farmers and workers who could not get to America soon enough to start working.
“[This meant that] the farmers they were supposed to work for made alternative arrangements to get people from other countries, or even Americans, to work on the farm and start with their harvesting season.”
‘South Africans prepared to do hard labour’
In Gaybba’s experience, US farmers employ foreign workers due to their work ethic.
“American farmers employ foreign workers, especially South Africans, because [we] are willing to do anything and everything on the farm to make sure that it runs smoothly. We are willing to do the tough jobs and the hard jobs on the farm and we do it without asking any questions.”
Food For Mzansi’s Sinesipho Tom reported in November 2021 that around 275 000 workers entered the US in 2019 on H-2A visas – a non-immigrant visa programme that allows US officials to bring foreign nationals to the US to fill low-skill, temporary or seasonal agricultural jobs for which US workers are not available.
While more than 90% of these workers arrived from Mexico, South Africans accounted for the second most in-demand group of workers, and of the 7 000 temporary work visas awarded to South Africans that year, about 5 000 were for skilled machinery operators.
Meanwhile, H-2A agricultural workers can also look forward to earning a bit more money. A wage freeze imposed by the former administration of President Donald Trump in 2020, that resulted in a wage reduction for H-2A farmworkers to 2019 levels, was overturned last month thanks to a number of lawsuits. Wages are now set to increase.
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