The United Farm Workers Union is asking all progressive people to object to the new rules for agricultural guest workers that the Bush administration is pushing.
At the beginning of February, President George Bush announced new rules for the country’s agricultural guest worker system, the H2A program.
Under the old rules, only about 75,000 H2A guest workers were being employed on U.S. farms each year. Much of the rest of the farm labor population, estimated at 1.2 million, was made up of undocumented workers, and according to some experts, up to three quarters of the farm labor force.
Farm owners have complained that the H2A program was hard to work with because of rules requiring them to certify with the government that they had tried and failed to find U.S. workers for the jobs, and to pay, not minimum wages but “adverse effect wages,” which mean wages that in that area would not bring the average farm wage down overall. This means that they have been paid a bit above minimum wage.
Another complaint of farmers was that they had to show government inspectors that they were providing safe and comfortable housing for all their guest workers.
The new policy announced by Bush and Labor Secretary Elaine Chao would allow farmers to simply attest to the federal government, leaving out state governments, that they have tried to find U.S. workers (by putting three ads in general circulation newspapers over a longer period than before) and could not. They can vary the wages of guest farmworkers according to skill, the nature of the job, and local wage variations instead of paying one “adverse affect” wage in each state, which advocates of farm labor rights fear will amount to a net reduction of wages.
They no longer will have to provide their own housing to guest workers, but may give the workers “vouchers” to fend for themselves in finding (usually non-existent or poor quality) private rental housing in the area.
In exchange for these concessions, fines for violations of the rules for employing guest workers will increase considerably, in addition to some other modifications.
The UFW denounced the changes, pointing out that in many cases they will mean a net reduction of wages and a worsening of the housing situation. This so-called “overhaul” of the nation’s agricultural guest worker program will result in lower wages and worsen conditions for farm workers that are already unacceptable. Many studies have shown that not only is the guest worker system inherently super-exploitative, but that employers manage to get around the rules. This will now be easier.
The UFW and FLOC support the AgJobs program, stalled in Congress for several years, which would permit current undocumented farm labor and future possible guest workers to transition to permanent resident visas and eventual citizenship.
Employers have been complaining bitterly to the government and press about crops allegedly “rotting in the fields” because of their inability to get workers. This complaint is related to recent government crackdowns on undocumented workers. Right-wing Republican bashers of immigrant workers have suggested the expansion of convicts in federal and state prisons as a source of farm labor.
The Bush administration has had a constant aim of greatly expanding guest worker programs, and is now doing so by administrative means, as changes in the new rules evidently do not require congressional action, but only a 45-day period of public comment.
There is still time to protest the new rules. To do so online, go to the United Farmworkers’ website: http://www.ufwaction.org/campaign/dol208?qp_source=web