Farmworkers in the News: Late June 2012

The last couple of weeks have been a whirlwind of news.  As you probably all know, the Supreme Court issued two major rulings two weeks ago, one upholding President Obama’s health care reform law and one sending a strong message that the regulation of immigration is a federal issue by striking down as unconstitutional several provisions of Arizona’s harsh immigration law, SB 1070. While the Court did allow one harmful provision of the Arizona law to stand –a provision requiring law enforcement officers to check the immigration status of any detained person reasonably suspected of being undocumented—the Court warned that this provision, in its application, may be unconstitutional as well.  As FJ explained in our statements, both rulings demonstrate the desperate need for comprehensive immigration reform.  Many farmworkers face significant barriers accessing health care and this will continue until undocumented farmworkers are able achieve immigration status.

Labor Shortages?

Meanwhile, growers continue to try to make the case for a new or revised guestworker program with greatly reduced protections by complaining about the H-2A program protections (or “red tape” as they like to say) and by trumpeting alarms about labor shortages. The LA Times published an Op-Ed by Tom Nassif, President of the Western Growers Association, calling for a guestworker program that would include undocumented workers.  For years, the Western Growers Association was a major player pushing for the historic bipartisan compromise bill AgJOBS, which included a path to legal immigration status for farmworkers.  However, Nassif is now advocating for a so-called “sensible visa plan,” which would include undocumented workers but would not offer them “amnesty” (i.e. a path to citizenship) and would require workers to return to their countries of origin after 2 or 3 years.  Guestworker status is not the answer.  Guestworker proposals that remove government oversight and lower farmworker wages and working conditions will displace US workers and worsen already poor wages and working conditions for all farmworkers.  Instead of encouraging employers to improve wages and working conditions to attract a stable workforce, guestworker proposals would facilitate the importation of a new exploitable foreign workforce at substandard wages to do the same jobs the current experienced workforce performs, while doing nothing to allow current undocumented workers an opportunity to become permanent members of our society.  In addition to higher wages, employers could improve working conditions through such steps as decreasing workers’ exposure to pesticides, as detailed in a recent article.

Along with this call for a new guestworker program are the usual articles highlighting perceived farm labor shortages. While FJ agrees that there is a shortage of work-authorized farmworkers, there are many skilled and experienced farmworkers who have been contributing to our economy and deserve the chance to earn legal immigration status with a path to citizenship.  Ironically, while farmers in Washington are once again reporting possible labor shortages, last year’s events show the complexity of this issue. Last summer, a large grower turned to prison labor at the cost of $22/hour. When domestic workers sought those same wages they were turned away.  And at the same time that growers were turning to convict labor, workers at another orchard were told they would earn only $6/hour and were then left without transportation home.

Meanwhile, across the country on the east coast, growers in New York are fighting against possible overtime pay for farmworkers, claiming that workers will lose money because they will end up working fewer hours: ‘Now my workers are working 54 hours a week. They're going to be cut down to 40 hours a week and then I'm going to lay them off and hire other people to take that slack,’ said local farmer, Keith Neilmeier.” Wait, so there’s an oversupply of workers in New York? Where are all those extra workers going to come from?

And in Georgia, even as they complain about labor shortages, growers are becoming increasingly picky about the qualifications of interested US workers and are now requiring farmworkers to have months of farm experience to be eligible for hire. The real intent behind this experience requirement is clear: discourage US workers from applying. “This may be one barrier [to the H-2A program] we've taken down; they [growers] won't have to go through the hassle of the referrals [of US workers]." The Produce News. Just ask Hamilton Growers, being sued by the EEOC for discriminating against American workers is a real hassle. And by the way, Georgia growers have been complaining about labor shortages due to their own state’s anti-immigrant law but continue to oppose legalization for their experienced undocumented workers and are instead clamoring for a revised H-2A guestworker program with extremely limited worker protections. Georgia’s Ag Commissioner Gary Black has proposed to allow undocumented workers to stay by obtaining a 5-year work permit for a mere $10,000.


The H-2A Program: Always Available

At least one article highlights the availability of the H-2A program for agriculture, although all the while giving growers yet another opportunity to complain about the bureaucracy and red tape of the program. In the article, the North Carolina Growers’ Association admits the program works and is available (as an association making its profits off of the H-2A program, their self-interest in promoting the H-2A program is clear), yet they continue to argue that it should be easier (despite a 95% approval rate of applications) and cheaper.  While the H-2A program is extremely problematic from a worker standpoint due to worker vulnerability, it does give growers access to needed labor until Congress passes immigration reform.  And NCGA’s participation in the H-2A program is an excellent example of the realm of possibility to improve the situation for workers in the H-2A program. The Farm Labor Organizing Committee has a contract with NCGA and has greatly improved conditions for H-2A workers recruited by NCGA, including by giving them a right to return in future seasons and eliminating their need to pay recruitment fees, as well as helping workers address complaints about working conditions.

Ending on a Positive Note

And to end, some good news, the UFW reached a labor agreement with one of the largest fresh tomato companies in the United States, representing some 800 workers, who will receive higher wages and a pension plan, among other benefits.