Samuel Lowenberg - Independent Journalist biography articles articles

Agribusiness looks for help

Daily Deal (New York, NY)  May 22, 2000 Monday

Legislation that could affect as many as 500,000 farm workers is quietly wending its way through the corridors of Capitol Hill.

While the high-tech industry's push to increase the number of visas granted to foreign workers has received a lot of attention, another piece of legislation that could affect as many as 500,000 farm workers is quietly wending its way through the corridors of Capitol Hill.

The bill, driven by the powerful agribusiness lobby, would dramatically expand an existing agricultural guest worker program. Growers face opposition from labor, Latino and religious groups, who say the bill is a cynical measure to increase the availability of cheap labor.

A similar bill was killed two years ago by the Clinton administration. This time, however, growers are optimistic about their chances. The major reason: The new version of the bill includes a provision that allows farm workers who have entered this country illegally to win permanent residency.

Under the legislation, farm workers in the country illegally can become eligible for a green card if they work as official guest workers for five out of the next seven years. The aspiring immigrants would have to work in the agriculture sector for 180 days a year. They would not be allowed to get non-agricultural jobs and would have to return home for at least 65 days a year.

"What we are doing is providing an opportunity for people who want to work here anyway," says Mike Ware, chief of staff to Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, one of the bill's main supporters. "This is an opportunity for people who do not have other advantages."

Craig has vowed to bring the legislation to the Senate floor and is considering attaching it to the bill that provides guest workers to the high-tech industry under the H1-B program.

But worker advocates say the bill would weaken existing protections. From their perspective, the legislation is just a scheme to legalize the cheap labor the growers already use.

"This proposed guest-worker program is really kind of a cruel hoax," says Bruce Goldstein, head of the Farmworkers Justice Fund. "The workers will be in such a vulnerable status that they couldn't seek to enforce the limited rights they have. They are not just creating an immigration program, they are trying to enact a lot of labor law."

Growers claim they suffer from a labor shortage and crops are left unpicked. The farm lobby has been trying to drive this home with an aggressive grassroots program. Last week, dozens of growers from California flew to Washington to meet with the state's delegation-including Democrats Sen. Diane Feinstein and Rep. Sam Farr, and Republican Rep. Richard Pombo. Farr opposes the bill; Feinstein has not issued a statement. Pombo is planning to introduce a version of the guest-worker bill in the House in the next few days, according to a spokesman.

The growers and their supporters say the bill not only will help them sustain their businesses but also will help the thousands of foreign workers who toil in U.S. fields each year.

"Keep in mind that these people are illegal now," said Mary Healy, spokeswoman for Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., one of the bill's authors. "They have no rights, no protections. There is no way the situation can get worse for them."

While the rationale for the bill rests on the growers' argument that they can't find enough workers, worker advocates contend that there is no labor shortage. They cite reports from the Congressional Research Service and the General Accounting Office that show an unemployment rate of more than 11% for farm workers.

The CRS also notes that employers facing labor shortages usually raise their wages. But average wages for farm workers fell from 1989 to 1998, when adjusted for inflation.

"That is what the growers are after-continuing the oversupply of workers so they don't have to raise wages," says Joel Najar of the National Council of La Raza, a Latino advocacy group.

Furthermore, the provisions of the bill allowing illegal workers to apply for residency will only hurt laborers, according to worker advocates. The problem, they say, is that the estimated 400,000 illegal workers who would enter the green- card program will not be afforded protections normally extended guest workers.

In contrast, guest agricultural workers who come into the country legitimately through the H-2A guest-worker program receive special benefits, such as higher wages, housing and transportation. About 40,000 foreigners are working under this program.

Advocates also argue that the bill would put pressure on workers not to complain to employers about wages or conditions for fear of losing their jobs and their ability to gain residency.

Worker advocates contend that the bill would also lower protections for guest workers under the H-2A program.

They claim the legislation could lower existing wages because of a provision that allows H-2A workers to be paid as a "group." The workers would be required to earn only the minimum wage, which is lower than what they are now guaranteed.

The bill also removes the requirement that employers provide housing. Instead, they can provide workers with a housing allowance of roughly $170 a month.

Housing for itinerant workers is extremely scarce, says Goldstein, meaning many workers would be left without shelter.

Sharon Hughes, a lobbyist for the growers, says workers advocates are misinterpreting the bill. She says the legislation requires that individuals would still have to be paid the prevailing wage for the geographic area and occupation, which is higher than the minimum wage. Letting growers provide a housing allowance was designed to get more of them into the program. After three years, if sufficient housing is not available, the bill provides for governors in each state to mandate that employers provide housing.

All Material Copyright Samuel Lowenberg