09/15/2011

Proposed Federal Legislation Shreds Protections for Farmworkers

The Southern Poverty Law Center asked members of Congress today to oppose legislation that would greatly expand one of the nation’s guestworker programs and shred protections for both guestworkers and U.S. workers.

In a letter to members of the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement, we outlined why the American Specialty Agriculture Act is an attack on all farmworkers. This legislation – HR 2847 – may be touted as much-needed reform for a country hoping to jumpstart its economy, but it is not.

The devil is truly in the details.

The proposal, introduced by Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, would replace the H-2A temporary agricultural visa program with a new guestworker program – the H-2C program. While the H-2A program is certainly a flawed program in need of an overhaul, this legislation is not the answer. It is a blatant attempt to circumvent the already inadequate protections for guestworkers. And, while its main target is immigrant farmworkers, it will strip away rights and shrink wages for U.S. workers as well.

Here are the concerns we raised with members of the subcommittee:

  • 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.

 

The SPLC also provided subcommittee members with copies of our 2007 report, Close to Slavery. The report documents the routine abuses within the nation’s current H-2A and H-2B guestworker programs and offers recommendations for effectively and fairly overhauling these programs.

We have a moral obligation to ensure that guestworkers are treated fairly when they come to our country. We also must protect U.S. workers. Any reform should strengthen, not weaken, protections for all workers. It should not be a giveaway to employers at the expense of fair wages and worker rights.

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