San Joaquin Valley, Calif.—In November of 2020, Roberto arrived in California’s San Joaquin Valley to pick oranges, tangerines, and lemons for Porterville Citrus, a large grower. He’d been hired in Veracruz, Mexico, by a recruiter for Fresh Harvest, a labor contractor who brings workers to the United States every year under the H-2A temporary visa program.
“We were being paid by the hour, but they put production quotas on us and continually demanded more,” he said in an interview in May. “They said we’d be fired and put on a blacklist if we didn’t meet the quota. In the oranges, we had to fill a bin every hour. If there was a lot of fruit in the trees, we had to fill it every 45 minutes, or even every half hour.”
Roberto’s experience is not unique. Last year, in the middle of the pandemic, the US Department of Labor gave certifications to California growers allowing them to bring in about 25,000 H-2A workers. This year many of those workers are laboring in the extreme heat wave in the San Joaquin Valley, where temperatures rise to over 110 degrees by early afternoon.
People keep working in the heat, motivated by fear and economic necessity. “We all come from marginalized communities in Mexico where there’s no work,” Roberto explained. “It’s easy for the company to take advantage of our need.” In his crew of 45 pickers, eight were fired in six months for not meeting the quota. “It was completely exhausting,” he said. “The food the company gave us wasn’t enough, and we were tired all the time.”
Like most of the H-2A workers I’ve interviewed, Roberto asked me not to use his real name. “All the people I work with are afraid of reprisals if we speak up. We can be fired at any time. The company tells us we can’t come back the next year if we don’t do what they want.”
Roberto was housed, along with several hundred other H-2A workers, at the Palm Tree Inn, a rundown motel by the freeway in Porterville. “Some of us were living three to four people in one room,” he said, “and there are rooms with as many as eight or 10. In the van or bus going to and from work we’re crowded like sardines. During the pandemic we’ve been very worried about it.”
On May 28, he and over two dozen other workers stood in the motel’s parking lot, demanding to meet with the contractor who’d hired them. Their work contracts and visas had expired, and they feared returning to Mexico without their final paychecks. “It wasn’t the first time they didn’t pay us on time,” Roberto charged. After local activists and even a Porterville city councilman and the mayor of nearby Delano joined them, the company handed out their paychecks and most headed home.
The photographs in this series are an effort to show visually the reality Roberto described. Some show the work process of two other crews of H-2A workers, hired by a different contractor. Others show the Palm Tree Inn and other motels where they live. Since the number of workers brought to California by growers increases by thousands every year, we need a better understanding of their true situation. Roberto’s story and the photographs are a part of that picture.