With anti-immigration reform sweeping the states, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) has suggested making significant changes to the guest-worker program, triggering opposition from worker rights group like the Southern Poverty Law Center.
HR 2847 would replace the H-2A temporary agricultural visa program with a new guest worker program. Among the concerns detailed by the SPLC are the following:
• The American Specialty Agriculture Act significantly reduces farmworkers’ wages. Currently, the U.S. Department of Labor provides an “Adverse Effect Wage Rate” to offset the negative impact an influx of guestworkers may have on the wages of U.S. workers. This legislation would allow growers to pay only the greater of the prevailing wage or the minimum wage – resulting in significantly lower wages for U.S. workers and guestworkers.
• It leaves guestworkers holding the bag on transportation, recruitment and visa costs. Currently, an H-2A guestworker’s recruitment, visa and inbound transportation costs must be reimbursed by the grower during the first workweek. This legislation would require growers to reimburse guestworkers for their transportation costs only after the worker completes half of the contract. This means guestworkers who are not reimbursed immediately are still paying interest on the loans they may have used to cover these expenses. That debt also creates a disincentive for guestworkers to leave jobs where they face abusive working conditions.
• It effectively eliminates guestworkers’ access to counsel and meaningful legal remedies. The legislation would only allow guestworkers access to federally funded Legal Services attorneys for disputes related to employer-provided housing. Mandatory arbitration would be required to settle all other disputes.
• It hurts U.S. workers. The legislation effectively closes off farm work opportunities to U.S. workers by limiting circulation of the job announcements, closing off the opportunity U.S. workers have to seek employment once the work has begun, and expanding the guestworker program to non-seasonal and non-temporary work.
• It requires the U.S. Department of Agriculture to enforce labor standards for guestworkers – standards the department has no experience enforcing. The bill strips the Department of Labor of its authority to enforce labor standards and U.S. worker recruitment requirements in the H-2C program. It requires the Department of Agriculture to take over all enforcement responsibilities for the H-2C program. This shift places these responsibilities with a federal agency traditionally allied with agribusiness interests and no experience enforcing labor standards.
H-2A is a program in need of desperate overhaul, a point that both Republicans and Democrats agree on. But that overhaul cannot come at the expense of the already limited protections currently offered to those workers. Contact your representatives in Congress and tell them to oppose HR 2847.
Photo from nicsarebi via flickr.