SA farm workers in hot demand in US after travel ban exemption - these skills can get you a visa

Business Insider SA
South Africa H-2A visa US
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  • The H-2A visa – for temporary workers performing agricultural services – allows South Africans to enter the US despite the current travel ban.
  • Second only to Mexico, H-2A visa holders from South Africa are in highest demand.
  • South Africans who have experience in driving tractors, trucks, and combine harvesters on farms are especially sought after.
  • But the US consulate’s limited operating hours are causing delays in H-2A visa applications, with the vital planting season rapidly approaching.
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The US has revised its blanket travel ban on South Africa to allow H-2A visa holders entry. This non-immigrant certification, for temporary workers performing agricultural services, allows qualified South Africans to stay in the US for up to ten months.

South African farm workers, particularly those skilled in operating equipment and machinery, are highly sought after in the US. The H-2A programme allows US farmers to hire migrant labour to assist with planting, cultivating, and harvesting.

In 2019, prior to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, around 275,000 workers entered the US on H-2A visas. While more than 90% of these labourers arrive from Mexico, South Africans accounted for the second most in-demand workers.

Just over 7,000 South Africans successfully obtained H-2A visas in 2019, according to the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Of these, approximately, 5,000 temporary work visas were awarded to skilled machinery operators.

South Africans with the ability to operate and repair tractors, balers, combine harvesters, plows, planters, and sprayers are especially valuable to US farmers.

The travel ban on South Africans to the US, put in place by US President Joe Biden last month, initially included H-2A visa holders, sending US farmers into a panic.

The American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) penned a letter to the DHS, requesting that South Africans with H-2A visas be excluded from the ban.

“Many of these South African 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,” said Zippy Duvall, President of the AFBF, in his request to have these workers allowed into the country.

Biden reacted quickly, and last week, announced that South African H-2A visa holders would be permitted to enter as “a national interest exception to travel”.

How to get a visa

Local recruitment agencies which specialise in facilitating H-2A visa applications, say that while the global pandemic and associated travel restrictions have impacted operations, demand for South African agricultural machine operators remains high.

Once such agency, Golden Opportunities International, confirms that South Africans with a specific skillset, backed by years of experience in the agricultural industry, have no problems finding placement in the US.

“We are looking for people who have agricultural experience in machines, like combines, tractors, grain carts and also truck drivers,” explains Celia van Heerden of Golden Opportunities International.

“A Code 14 licence [to operate a vehicle over 16,000 kg, with a trailer of over 750 Kg] is definitely the best to have because then they can use all the large equipment. They need to have agriculture experience with farm equipment... the guys who don’t have this experience struggle to get anything.”

But lockdown has delayed H-2A visa approvals due to the limited operating hours of the US consulate, which needs to process all applications individually.

Although the exemption signed by Biden has been welcomed, delays in the process threaten to exclude South Africans from the vital planting season.

Prior to the pandemic, applications could be processed within a week. Now, with the reduced working hours, applications can take between three to four weeks to process, according to Van Heerden.

South Africans who successfully apply for an H-2A visa – either through the US consulate or through an agency like van Heerden’s – will be reimbursed for travel to the US.

Seasonal agricultural workers employed full-time typically earn around $2,000 (R29,000) per month, depending on their skill levels and crop, with free boarding included.

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