Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

A Labor Day Attack on Farmworkers

September 5th, 2008 | Bruce Goldstein

Amid all the hype of political conventions, analysis of the Republican VP pick and Labor Day celebrations for the rest of the country, the Bush Administration will launch an attack on the nation’s farmworkers.

Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao and Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, at any moment, will announce extensive changes to the H-2A guestworker program, slashing wages and reducing worker protections for hundreds of thousands of our nation’s farmworkers. These policy changes deserve our attention.

The H-2A program is a temporary agricultural guestworker program that permits employers to apply for permission to hire foreign labor for jobs lasting ten months or less. To bring in H-2A guestworkers, employers must show that they cannot find U.S. workers who want the jobs. These will be the most far-reaching changes in the laws regulating guestworker programs since 1942. If the changes are finalized, as we expect them to be next week, and take effect, this Administration will have returned us to an era of agricultural labor exploitation that many thought ended over 65 years ago.

What a Labor Day gift to farmworkers!

The Administration will finalize plans that were published several months ago. They called for cutting wage rates and wage protections for both domestic and foreign workers, minimizing recruitment obligations inside the U.S., ending the requirement to provide workers with free housing that meets federal and state safety requirements, curtailing or eliminating transportation reimbursement payments, and removing much of the government oversight that is supposed to deter and remedy illegal employer conduct. There is much more and it’s almost all terrible.

U.S. farmworkers will be denied jobs and forced to quit due to the onerous conditions. The aim of the Administration is to create an endless supply of guestworkers who our government will allow to be exploited at low wage wages and suffer grueling productivity standards that U.S. workers cannot afford to accept. By enticing employers to use vulnerable guestworkers at less than the cost of U.S. workers, the Administration theorizes that it will wean employers from hiring undocumented workers.

This low-wage, low-road strategy is not just morally reprehensible, it is economically destructive. Most farmworkers are undocumented. The Administration’s proposal does absolutely nothing to address that reality. They are already here doing this back-breaking work. Most of them are law-abiding people seeking to support their families, embodying those All-American values such as “self-sacrifice” and “hard-work”. Employers need them. The Bush Administration cannot make them go away.

For decades government commissions have told agriculture that it must stabilize its workforce and improve productivity by increasing wages and modernizing its labor practices, rather than relying on new waves of exploitable foreign labor to overcome high employee turnover.

We call on Congress, including Senator McCain and Senator Obama, to do whatever it takes to stop the Administration from issuing its planned changes to the H-2A guestworker program. There are reasonable alternatives that have won bipartisan support. Both Sen. McCain and Sen. Obama support those alternatives.

During this Labor Day season, amid the election year hype, we must think about the people toiling to put food on our tables. If the Administration issues the final regulations, as we expect they will any day, we plan to ask you to tell Congress to prevent those regulations from every taking effect.

For more information on the H-2A regulatory changes, and news as it develops, please see the H-2A News page on the Farmworker Justice website.

About the Author: Bruce Goldstein joined Farmworker Justice as a staff attorney in 1988, then served as Co-Executive Director starting in September 1995, and was named Executive Director in July 2005. At Farmworker Justice, Bruce has focused on litigation and advocacy on immigration issues and labor law, with a special emphasis on the H-2A temporary foreign agricultural worker program. Bruce’s activities on “guestworker” issues have included litigation against private employers and the government, advocacy in administrative agencies and Congress, training of lawyers and paralegals, building nation-wide coalitions, advising grassroots organizations, and testifying before Congress. Bruce has also sought to address the problem of “farm labor contractors” and other labor intermediaries used by farming operations, often in an attempt to avoid responsibility for complying with labor laws. Bruce received his bachelor’s degree in 1977 from the New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University, and his law degree from Washington University in St. Louis (1980). He has worked at the National Labor Relations Board, at a legal services office in East St. Louis, Illinois, and in private law practice concentrating in labor law, personal injury and civil rights.

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