Samuel Lowenberg - Independent Journalist biography articles articles

Ag groups revive foreign workerprogram as critics raise specter of exploitation

Legal Times  August 10, 1998, Monday

In 1942, Congress enacted a temporary plan to bring in agricultural workers from Mexico to replace American farm laborers serving in World War II. By 1964 when Congress abolished the initiative, known as the Bracero program, it had become synonymous with the rampant exploitation of immigrant labor.

A generation later, worker advocates say, the Bracero program is on its way back.

Late last month, at the behest of the agriculture industry, the U.S. Senate overwhelmingly approved a provision in a massive appropriations bill that would revive a large-scale "guest worker" program that opponents argue would revive the evils of the Bracero era.

In fact, says Bruce Goldstein, head of the D.C.-based Farmworker Justice Fund, the proposal, which passed the Senate without hearings and after less than an hour of debate, could end up harming workers even more than the discredited old program.

"The Bracero program had certain protections, " says Goldstein, who is leading the fight against the bill. "The problem was, they weren't enforced. This time around, the growers are making sure that those protections aren't in there." Agribusiness lobbyists respond that the legislation actually enhances worker protections, and they argue that it is desperately needed to stave off a severe shortage of laborers that threatens U.S. farming.

U.S. workers don't want to do backbreaking farm labor, industry advocates say, forcing growers to hire illegal immigrants who face the constant threat of deportation. Legalizing this work force would provide employers with stability and improve the workers' lot, says Sharon Hughes, chief lobbyist for the National Council of Agricultural Employers (NCAE), the major agribusiness trade group.

The legislation, attached to the Commerce, Justice, State and Judiciary appropriations bill, has encountered opposition from worker advocates, immigration scholars, labor unions, the United States Catholic Conference, and the Clinton administration. Opponents say expanding guest worker programs would undercut U.S. farm workers, institutionalize the low wages and poor working conditions of foreign workers, and result in even more illegal immigration. A handful of guest worker bills have also been introduced in the House of Representatives.

The Senate bill is nothing more than an effort to legalize the exploitation of illegal immigrants, says Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.). "This has nothing to do with concern about hiring undocumented workers, " says Berman. "It has to do with hiring workers on the cheap."

The proposed law would expand and revise the current agricultural guest worker program, known as H-2A, which currently serves about 20, 000 workers. Agricultural interests have been trying to enlarge the program for years. During the current election cycle, fruit, vegetable, cotton, and flower growers and their associations contributed almost $1 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

The industry found natural allies on the issue in farm state members such as Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Bob Graham (D-Fla.), the architects of the Senate bill.

Berman terms the bill a giveaway to agribusiness, which has "had the subsidy, first of guest workers, then of undocumented workers, for many years." He says growers have actively sought out illegal workers, rather than improve their technology and offer competitive wages.

Wyden spokesman David Seldin replies, "Are you interested in preserving agriculture or not? And if you are, you have to approach the issue from the point of view of the economic realities that agriculture operates in." The bill's opponents say there is no labor shortage. They point to the reports of two bipartisan commissions that opposed expansion of the guest worker program and to a December 1997 General Accounting Office study that concluded, "A widespread farm labor shortage does not appear to exist now and is unlikely in the near future."

The GAO report also noted that almost 40 percent of that work force was illegal. However, the report said that there was very little enforcement by the Immigration and Naturalization Service and little impact on the supply of farm labor.

This has incensed growers. "It is unconscionable that the GAO is telling the agricultural industry to be dependent on illegal workers, " says Hughes, who adds that ever since the GAO report was released, the INS has cracked down on farm employers.

The result, says Hughes, was a massive grass-roots effort in which growers from around the country came to Washington to warn lawmakers about a looming labor shortage resulting from INS enforcement.

INS spokesman Ivan Ortiz denies that the agency has increased enforcement against farm workers in the last few years.

Helping the NCAE is longtime lobbyist Monte Lake of McGuiness & Williams. Anthony Podesta and Charles Hansen of Podesta Associates were also brought onto the team, primarily to deal with the Clinton administration. Podesta's brother John is White House deputy chief of staff.

John Fraser, the Department of Labor's Wage and Hour acting chief, says the administration strongly opposes the legislation. U.S. farmers, he says, need to offer higher wages and working conditions that will attract domestic workers, not keep their standards so low that only illegal immigrants will take the jobs. The proposed legislation, he says, would only add legitimacy to the workers' already poor working conditions.

Fraser notes that real wages for farm workers have fallen since the mid-1980s- -the average yearly income for a family of farm workers is $6, 300--and that labor costs make up only a small percentage of the cost of agricultural goods. The guest worker process itself almost guarantees exploitation, according to the 1995 U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, headed by the late Barbara Jordan. Because workers brought in on a contract can work for only one employer, they are unlikely to complain about their treatment for fear of being fired and sent home. The report concluded that binding a worker to an employer is " incompatible with the values of democratic societies worldwide."

The case of Mexican farm worker Noe Rivera Garay illustrates the ups and downs of being a guest worker. Garay, 26, has come in under the H-2A program for six years. He says he has generally been happy with the program and makes far more money than he can at home.

Every summer, Garay leaves his wife and young son behind for five months to work for about $5.80 an hour picking tobacco in Virginia. But this year he took a job picking vegetables in Georgia, and things turned out differently.

"It was slave work, " says Garay, speaking through an interpreter. He says he slept in a room with 18 other men and ended up making only about $3 an hour. The job was so bad that he left after a month and went back to Mexico.

"I was very disillusioned from this last experience, " he says, "but I will come back if I can find the right grower who is not a slave driver. They should realize that slavery was abolished some time ago."

Seldin, the Wyden spokesman, says illegal workers--almost half of migrant farm

workers--now have no protections at all. He argues that once they are legalized, they will gain new rights.

Seldin points to the bill's guarantee of wages 5 percent above the local prevailing rate, grower-provided housing or a housing stipend, and a Department of Labor-run computer registry to match workers with employers. The registry, he says, would give U.S. workers the first crack at a job before it is offered to foreign workers.

Fraser of the Labor Department responds that the registry proposal is unworkable and would not necessarily aid U.S. workers.

The bill's other promises of worker protections are illusory and even remove some of the protections of the current H-2A program, says the Farmworker Justice Fund's Goldstein. Many loopholes can be exploited by growers, he says, pointing to language that permits workers to be paid as a group, so that only the average payment meets the minimum wage. This means many workers could easily make less than minimum wage.

Goldstein also notes that the bill abolishes the current H-2A guarantee that a worker will be paid for at least 75 percent of the contract time for which he is hired. This is important because workers may travel thousands of miles, and the amount of farm work is notoriously unpredictable.

The housing guarantee also falls short, say worker advocates, because it allows workers to be given a housing stipend rather than housing itself. Housing for migrant laborers is severely lacking, particularly in the West, and the specified amount--about $125 a month in Oregon, for instance--is meager, says Michael Dale, a lawyer at the Oregon Law Center who represents farm workers. The legislation, Dale says, "is basically telling people to sleep under bridges."

By Sam Loewenberg