Media Round-Up: Continued Calls for Guestworker Programs

In the last few weeks, media coverage of agriculture has demonstrated the continued call by growers and politicians, including in the 2012 Republican Party Platform, for a new guestworker program or streamlining the existing H-2A temporary agricultural guestworker program to remove worker protections and government oversight.  These articles exaggerate claims of labor shortages and critique the H-2A programs’ worker protections as part of a campaign to gain public sympathy for a new guestworker program that would provide an abundant oversupply of cheap foreign labor. In one article that overtly attacks the H-2A program and hypes up fears of labor shortages, Representative Gallegly (R-Cal.) describes his vision of guestworker reform for farmworkers as follows:

Farmworkers “would not be a permanent resident and not have a pathway to citizenship but that would solve the problem in agriculture,” Gallegly said. "If they are required to stay in agriculture, we would have 10 times more (workers) than we need right now.” (emphasis added)
Proponents of H-2A modifications or a new agricultural guestworker program would like to see an oversupply of workers with bottomed out wages, little or no rights, and zero bargaining power or influence over policymakers.

A recent University of Vermont piece describes the results of a study by Professor Dan Baker showing that Latino dairy workers rarely seek medical care, primarily out of “fear of immigration/law enforcement.”  Other factors reportedly preventing workers from accessing care are language barriers, lack of transportation and cost of care.  Unfortunately, the end of the article states that “82.6 percent of Vermonters are in favor of a guest worker program that allows foreign laborers to work legally on Vermont dairy farms for up to three years.”  It’s unclear whether the survey asked whether those polled would also support a path to citizenship for the dairy workers already on the farms.  Guestworker programs may sound appealing to those who are unfamiliar with the programs that already exist.  Workers under the current system will never be able to earn citizenship through the programs, no matter how many years they work and contribute to the US economy.  Guestworker programs may sound appealing to those who are unfamiliar with the current programs that exist and their inherent problems or are unaware that these workers will never be able to earn citizenship through the programs, no matter how long they work and contribute to the US economy.  In practice, guestworker programs both in the U.S. and abroad have resulted in systemic exploitation and abuse of workers.

Many of the issues identified by Baker’s study would not be eliminated by a guestworker program for dairy workers (with the notable exception of sheepherders, the H-2A temporary agricultural guestworker program is currently only available for temporary or seasonal positions, not year-round positions such as dairy workers).  Workers in the H-2A program, like their undocumented counterparts, fear immigration enforcement.  Guestworkers are tied to their employers by their visa, and work to the limits of human capacity, knowing that if they speak out when their rights are violated, they are likely to be fired and sent home or blacklisted for the next year.  The United States is a nation of immigrants, and workers who come here to earn a better life should have access to an immigration process that allows them to become Americans with full equal rights.

News on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals
The first Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) applicants were approved this week.  The New York Times reported that more than 72,000 applicants had applied as of Tuesday and that USCIS’s process of reviewing applications is going smoothly.

Farmworker Justice continues its advocacy to ensure that eligible farmworkers and their family members are able to participate in DACA. An article in the Huffington Post discussed how DACA could help low-wage workers as well as students, noting that more than half of farmworkers are under the age of 31, so many of them could be or become eligible if they are able to meet the educational and other requirements. Unfortunately, the education requirement is a major barrier for farmworkers who might otherwise be eligible for this relief.  As noted in an opinion piece by Human Rights Watch in USA Today, farmworker children often are unable to complete school due to the need to help support their families, yet they deserve legal status too.  Despite the hard work of farmworkers, who toil under grueling physical conditions to harvest our nation’s food, many do not earn enough to keep their family out of poverty.  The ability to enroll in qualifying educational programs and obtain “deferred action” status under DACA would help many farmworker youth lift themselves and their families out of poverty.

DACA has spurred state level debates and legislation over what benefits DACA participants should be entitled to.  For example, a California state legislator is sponsoring legislation to ensure that DACA participants can get driver’s licenses. The Arizona Board of Regents, which oversees state universities, is pushing back against Governor Brewer’s hardline statements that DACA participants will receive no government benefits by announcing that they may actually be eligible for in-state tuition.

Legislation Related to Farmworkers in California
Farmworkers have enjoyed both victories and defeats in the California legislature this session and are now urging Governor Brown to sign into law two bills that passed the California legislature and would help ensure that farmworkers no longer die or suffer illness from heat stress. One of the bills, AB 2676, The Humane Treatment for Farm Workers Act, would make it a misdemeanor to not provide adequate water and shade to workers in high heat conditions.  The other bill, AB 2346, “The Farm Worker Safety Act of 2012,” would allow farm workers to sue employers who repeatedly fail to meet heat safety requirements and would hold growers equally responsible for the violations of their labor contractors.  Read more at this Huffington Post piece UFW President Arturo Rodriguez.  We urge Governor Brown to sign these important bills!

Unfortunately, farmworkers continue to face discrimination in their right to overtime pay as the House failed to pass a bill that would give farmworkers the same rights to overtime as other workers.

Finally, a law authorizing California junior and high schools to teach students about the Bracero program was recently signed by Gov. Brown.  The Bracero program was once notorious for its abuses of workers and its history offers valuable insight into the current guestworker debate.

In Other Farmworker News
 The American Prospect published a great article about a 75-year-old farmworker (also a Farmworker Justice client), which describes his life-long experience in farm work and highlights the rise of farm labor contractors, their abusive practices and the failure of labor law enforcement in agriculture. 

“Lideres Campesinas” (Farm Worker Women Leaders) were applauded by the Desert Sun for their leadership in protecting women farmworkers from sexual harassment in the fields.