South African Farm Workers in Local Fields

gottschalk farms
This tractor is spraying fertilizer on an area farm property that H2A workers can operate.

By Linda Lane

As the agricultural season in the southwest Michigan area ramps up, farmers hope to welcome back skilled South African workers into the fields for a second season. The workers obtain H2A visas which allow them to work for up to 10 months here. This year the workers will earn $13.54 per hour plus housing and transportation.

The farm positions have been posted in the U.S. for Americans to apply for through government employment websites, as required by law. No one has applied for the positions.

“We just can’t find workers who are willing to do these jobs,” Jennifer Gottschalk said. “We can’t find dependable labor anymore; people who are willing to work hard. That’s our problem. People don’t want to do these jobs because of the long hours we work in the planting and harvesting seasons.” Gottschalk operates a local family farm and helps manage another larger operation with another owner.

Farm workers’ hours can range depending on what is happening on the farm. Workers are guaranteed a minimum of 35 hours per week, but during the “crazy busy season” hours can be as many as 100 hours a week. With no family distractions, the South Africans are simply here to work and don’t mind the long hours, she said.

Bringing in foreign workers to perform the jobs is no easy task. “If a U.S. citizen applies for the job, we are required to hire them over the foreigner. There are a whole lot of hurdles to jump and roadblocks to navigate to get the South Africans hired. There are lots of federal rules and regulations that we’ve got to meet,” Gottschalk said. “For instance, the federal government sets the pay rate with a minimum number of weekly hours, requires us to provide full-furnished housing and transportation to the job-site, and weekly trips to the grocery store, bank, and post office.”

The South Africans who worked for them last year came with some skills in how to operate large farm equipment, irrigation experience and some knowledge of the GPS software that is utilized. Although the workers had thick accents, all spoke English, minimizing the issue of a language barrier. For their part, the South Africans come over to work hard in order to send money home in an urgent effort to help their South African farms.

A factsheet outlining statistics on farm attacks and murders in South Africa, published and updated regularly by africacheck.org, clearly illustrates the alarming numbers of violent attacks and murders of those living and working on farms and smallholdings for more than the past 20 years. Between 2001-2018, annual violent attacks on farm workers and owners range from 446 to 1,069 and annual murders range from 49 to 140 as reported by the South African police.

Last year Gottschalk obtained a total of six H2A visas to employ the South Africans and they’ve applied for six visas again this year. “The painstaking process to get workers here is crazy. The federal system is flawed for both the farm owners and the foreign workers. The amount of paperwork on both sides is mind-boggling. There needs to be a better process for people to come in through the borders and work,” Gottschalk said.

Due to the U.S. government shut down, the visa process has been greatly delayed this year. Although the H2A contract was supposed to begin March 1, workers won’t likely arrive until late March or early April.

Farm workers will drive large farm equipment, spray chemicals, help with irrigation, haul grain, work on equipment, plant and harvest around 10,000 acres this upcoming season.

“We have found that they’re really good people. Once we got them here, the six South African guys who came were so grateful to be here to work, they were willing to do anything and everything we asked of them. They are incredibly hard workers. They have become part of our extended families here, celebrating Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, and Christmas with us,” Gottschalk said. “People’s impression of immigrants coming here to work can be a little skewed. They really are good people coming to work in our country. If we all want to keep eating cheap food, farmers need the labor to help produce it.”

Gottschalk is very aware of the controversy about migrant workers. “These young men come through a legal process set up by the United States Government to work here and send money home to their family farms in most cases.”

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