Immigrant Labor in the Forest Industry: The Impacts of H-2B Employment on Local Livelihoods
Type of DegreeDissertation
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The production of timber requires labor, with peak labor demands coming during reforestation. Much of the labor used in tree planting in the United States (US) is provided by migrant workers. The overall purpose of this dissertation is to examine how the opportunity to work in the US affects migrant workers in their home communities. The specific focus of this study is on migrant workers from Guatemala who work in the southeastern US (South) under H-2B visas issued by the US Department of Immigration. Migrant laborers working under the H-2B guest worker visa program plant an estimated two million acres every year in the South. In 2004 migrant labor constituted 84% of the forest management labor in the southern forest industry. H-2B labor provides relatively cheap, productive, and reliable labor that enables the forest products industry to remain competitive. The purpose of this study is threefold: First, to describe the role, impact, and importance of H-2B forest workers to Alabama’s forest industry from the perspective of professional foresters; second, to document laborers’ background and explain why immigrant labor from Guatemala participates in the H-2B program; and third, to describe the impacts that earnings associated with H-2B forest employment have on the livelihoods of participating workers, their families, and communities. This study uses a qualitative methodology composed of face-to-face interviews and snowball sampling. Interviews were conducted in Alabama with foresters and labor contractors and in Guatemala with forest workers, family members, community leaders, and government officials in 2012 and 2013 Results indicate that immigrant labor in Alabama’s forest product industry has become increasingly important to forest regeneration. Study participants expressed a preference for H-2B forest workers because of their versatility, productivity, and most importantly, their affordability. However, as a result of 2012 and 2015 Department of Labor wage rules, foresters are concerned about landowners’ willingness to plant as hand planting costs increase. H-2B forest workers are shown to migrate largely as a result of poor labor markets in their communities and the presence of persistent and chronic poverty. The impacts of remittances associated with H-2B forest work are seen in improvements to nutrition, housing, and access to healthcare. Long-term impacts are likely a result of investments in agricultural lands, microenterprise, and their children’s education.