SPLC argues in federal court today, seeking millions in lost wages for farmworkers

The Southern Poverty Law Center is going to court today to help domestic farmworkers and foreign guestworkers recover millions of dollars in wages they were never paid after performing backbreaking work.

The Southern Poverty Law Center is going to court today to help domestic farmworkers and foreign guestworkers recover millions of dollars in wages they were never paid after performing backbreaking work.

The case before the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals involves the arcane rules governing the federal H-2A guestworker program, which provides temporary foreign workers for the agriculture industry.

But it’s really about basic fairness.

With our allies, we’re fighting to reverse a lower court’s decision that effectively slashed guestworker wages during a nine-month period in 2009 and 2010. This one decision took an estimated $100 million out of the pockets of farmworkers – creating a huge windfall for growers.

The case stems from a long-running campaign by growers to block any attempts to improve the wages and working conditions for guestworkers. And it’s another example of the guestworker exploitation the SPLC is fighting every day.

Guestworkers come to our country seeking nothing more than the opportunity to earn a decent wage. Many mortgage their futures, paying steep recruiting fees to secure their passage to the United States for grueling temporary jobs in the fields.

But their dreams are often shattered once they arrive. Our nation’s flawed guestworker program treats these workers as commodities – nothing more than disposable workers. As the SPLC documented in its report Close to Slavery, these workers are routinely cheated out of wages, held virtually captive by employers and denied medical benefits for injuries.

They frequently endure these abuses because this program denies them the most fundamental protection of a free labor market – the ability to change jobs if they are cheated or abused by their employer. So they suffer in silence, bound to their employer, hoping their compliance is enough to avoid deportation, blacklisting or some other retaliation.

In other words, they may be forced to choose abuse over economic ruin.

But it’s not just foreign guestworkers who suffer. Easily exploitable guestworkers are far more attractive to many of these employers than U.S. workers. The flood of cheap, exploitable labor pushes down wages and workplace standards for everyone.

It’s no surprise that many of these employers want to continue this race to the bottom – or even accelerate it.

During the waning days of the Bush administration, they got their wish. The administration eviscerated the regulations that had governed how wages were calculated for H-2A guestworkers since 1987. The new regulations ensured guestworkers were paid even less for their hard work. It was the ultimate gift of cheap, exploitable labor.

Shortly after President George W. Bush left office, the new labor secretary put those regulations on hold – raising the ire of growers who took the secretary to court and succeeded in blocking the suspension. But guestworkers achieved a victory in March 2010 when a new set of regulations that restored wages took effect. Unfortunately, by the time these new rules took effect, the nation’s agricultural guestworkers had labored under the wage-slashing regulations for the better part of a year.

Along with our allies – the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project, the Law Office of Robert J. Willis, and Buescher, Goldhammer & Kelman – we intervened in the case on behalf of the U.S. workers and guestworkers and appealed to the 4th Circuit, where I’m presenting oral argument today.

We believe U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis was within her right to put the wage-slashing regulations on hold. We also believe that the 1987 regulations should have remained in place until the Department of Labor’s latest regulatory changes had taken effect.

But our efforts to protect guestworkers won’t end with this case.

Some politicians and policymakers are suggesting that an expanded guestworker program is a reasonable way to address this nation’s immigration problem. Unfortunately, these proposals often expand the number of guestworker visas while shrinking the meager protections the program offers – threatening to lower wages and working conditions for U.S. workers as well.

This is not a solution.

Our nation deserves a guestworker program that reflects our values and ideals – one that provides fair wages and conditions for workers. It should not serve as an accomplice to employers who want to build their businesses on the backs of exploited guestworkers. The SPLC is dedicated to protecting these workers and bringing true reform to this broken program.

Today’s case is another step toward that goal.