Another day, another Trump attack – this time on farm workers
Courtesy FLOC

WASHINGTON—Another day, and another Donald Trump attack on workers on behalf of corporate crooks.

This time, the president’s targets are already among the most-exploited toilers in the U.S.: seasonal “guest workers” here on H2-A visas who travel from state to state, South to North, helping harvest the crops that land on our dining room tables. Strawberries, cucumbers, and tomatoes in Georgia and Florida in the late winter and spring, onions and potatoes and cranberries in New York and elsewhere in the summer.

Trump’s beneficiaries are the agribusiness growers who already subject workers to backbreaking toil, often in unhealthy high heat, for low wages – such as pennies per pint of tomatoes – and terrible working conditions. Workers have few or no rights and sometimes are literally housed behind barbed wire.

And Trump’s scheme could hurt U.S. citizen workers and permanent legal residents – green card holders – say the United Farm Workers and Farmworker Justice, who are leading the campaign against it. That’s because Trump’s rules give agribusiness even more incentives to hire and exploit the “guest workers,” leaving the others out in the cold.

“The Trump administration seeks to guarantee agribusiness unlimited access to a captive workforce of indentured servants,” says Jocelyn Sherman of UFW.

The U.S. issued 139,832 H-2A visas in 2015. Last year it issued more than 242,000, and there’s no cap on how many “guest workers” can come into the U.S. to toil on farms, fisheries, and factories. For example, in Maryland, guest workers on H2-A visas toil on the chicken farms of the Eastern Shore and on the crab boats of nearby Chesapeake Bay.

Trump’s government proposed new rules for the H2-A visa program in late July. The deadline for comments is Sept. 24. The United Farm Workers and Farmworker Justice have good reasons for their campaign to stop Trump’s “guest worker” rules.

For example, in an interview earlier this year with the progressive group Wisconsin Watch and with Wisconsin Public Radio – after his employer was indicted in U.S. District Court – an H2-A visa holder code-named Roberto told of being held in inhumane conditions first in Georgia, then by a trafficker while toiling at the nearby Borzynski Farms in southeastern Wisconsin.

To get to the U.S. and to obtain his visa, Roberto said, he had not only to pay a high transportation fee but had to turn over the deed to his parents’ home in Mexico as a guarantee. In Georgia, the bosses seized his passport, along with those of the hundreds of other workers living in cramped conditions while harvesting vegetables there.

When that harvest was done, the labor trafficker transported him and 14 other natives of his hometown to Wisconsin. The law-breaking landed the Wisconsin farm in federal court. The farm owners say the traffickers who brought Roberto and his colleagues to Wisconsin are the guilty parties. The farm owners claimed they didn’t know of the inhumane conditions or the traffickers’ law-breaking.

Farmworker Justice and UFW say Trump’s new rules would only make a terrible situation for the workers even worse. Meliton Hernandez, a Monterrey, Mexico-based organizer for the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, an AFL-CIO member union, told Guardian the transportation fees are illegal. Hernandez estimates Mexican-based traffickers charge them to 60% of the H2-A applicants.

“In San Luis Potosí they are charging 17,000 pesos ($900), in Hidalgo 45,000 ($2,400),” he said. The fees are the Mexican exploitation of the visa applicants. Trump’s new rules would intensify U.S. exploitation, Farmworker Justice and UFW say.

“The 489 pages of complex regulations would devastate protections for all farmworkers,” including U.S. citizens and green card holders, as well as the H2-A visa holders, says UFW’s Sherman.

“The Trump administration seeks to guarantee agribusiness unlimited access to a captive workforce deprived of economic bargaining power and the right to vote. The proposal epitomizes the administration’s hostility to immigrants,” Farmworker Justice Executive Director Bruce Goldstein said in an H2-A fact sheet from his non-profit pro-worker group.

“At the same time the administration seeks to transform the farm labor force of 2.4 million people into a workforce of 21st century indentured servants, it is demonizing hard-working immigrants and ratcheting up cruel, heartless and counterproductive arrests and deportations, targeting many of our nation’s current experienced and valued farmworkers.”

Trump, Goldstein adds, also “hides behind the rhetoric of protecting American workers to try to justify many of the proposed changes to the H-2A regulations. But if finalized, the rule would reduce labor protections for both U.S. workers and H-2A temporary foreign workers in a variety of ways.”

The fact sheet says Trump wants to enlarge the program’s scope and weaken recruitment protections – the rule that bars an agribusiness from using H2-A visa holders until it can first prove U.S. citizen and green cardholders are unavailable.  Trump would also  “shift more costs onto workers and reduce housing inspections,” Goldstein says.

Another big shift, Farmworker Justice adds, is to virtually eliminate the H2-A visa program’s current “prevailing wage guarantees.” They order agribusinesses to pay the H2-A “guest workers” the prevailing local wage for other farmworkers or the federal or state minimum wage, whichever is highest. Numerous investigations, however, show the agribusinesses don’t obey that rule, either.

Agribusinesses are supposed to ensure at least half of their workers for the first half of the harvest/ growing season are U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents, with those groups also given later priority in hiring if current workers leave. Trump would cut the “half the workers” period to 30 days and would yank priority for citizens and green card holders, letting agribusinesses fill the slots with guest workers.

News reports show the H2-A visa holders, on farms and in other industries, are often confined in stifling barracks, barred from contact with the outside world and sometimes surrounded by barbed wire. The conditions are usually disclosed by the fortunate few who have escaped and contacted social justice and migrant rights groups as well as some state labor departments. That’s what Roberto did in Wisconsin.

“The rapid growth in the” H2-A visa  “program undermines the administration’s and employers’ claims that” the visa program “is too burdensome and expensive,” Farmworker Justice says. “Rather than capitulate to the employers’ demands for easier access to exploitable guest workers, the administration should support legislation to grant immigration status to the many undocumented immigrants who are laboring on our farms and ranches to produce our food. Employers should compete for farm labor by improving wages and working conditions.”


CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.

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