MAXWELL:  The farm worker rip-off act of 1998

7/26/1998- Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Once again, the nation’s farmers are counting on their pals in Congress to let them continue raking in huge profits by ripping off farm laborers. And again, Florida Sen. Bob Graham, D-Miami, is a main player in a grower-inspired conspiracy.

This time, he has joined five other senators from major agricultural states in introducing a bill designed to let farmers hire tens of thousands of temporary foreign workers to cultivate and harvest crops _ despite government evidence showing that such workers are unnecessary. The bill’s other sponsors are Dale Bumpers, D-Ark., Slade Gorton, R-Wash., Larry Craig, R-Ind., Gordon Smith, R-Ore., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore.

Called the Agricultural Job Opportunity Benefits and Security Act, the proposal would replace the agricultural H-2A guestworker program. Growers seldom use the H-2A system because its recruitment, wage, housing and working condition requirements protect American workers from displacement and lower wages resulting from competition with exploitable foreign labor.

The legislation would kill many of these protections, said Greg Schell, managing attorney of the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project in Belle Glade. “This bill represents an enormous step backwards for America’s workers,” he said. “Florida farmers would be guaranteed a limitless supply of cheap foreign labor at bargain basement prices. If this bill is adopted, all competitive incentives will be removed for Florida growers to improve wages and benefits for farm workers.”

In light of a recent General Accounting Office report indicating that the legislation would cause the loss of jobs among tens of thousands of U.S. farm workers already experiencing high rates of unemployment and underemployment, Graham’s actions are inexcusable.

GAO officials argue that the proposal perpetuates the agricultural industry’s lie about the nation not having enough laborers. Americans will not do backbreaking seasonal work, farmers claim. Untrue. Americans do all sorts of tough, dirty seasonal work _ laying asphalt on highways, mining coal, roofing in 100-plus-degree weather, constructing buildings. The difference is that these jobs pay much better and usually offer benefits that everyone other than farm workers takes for granted.

If growers mean that Americans will not break their backs for a few dollars an hour under intolerable conditions, they are right. Rather than requiring farmers to emulate their counterparts in other industries when they need workers _ improve wages and benefits _ Graham’s proposal reduces wages below levels required under the current H-2A system and degrades the quality of working conditions.

American agricultural practices, in fact, defy traditional economic theory, which states: When labor is in short supply, wages increase. In the farming industry, however _ where farmers claim a shortage of labor _ wages have fallen or remained stagnant for 20 years.

U.S. Department of Labor research indicates that the nation’s top agricultural counties have unemployment rates three to five times higher than the national average. And thousands of these unemployed are welfare recipients who need to find work soon because their benefits are being cut off.

Growers invented the labor shortage myth to trap the docile who do not complain, who work hard for low wages. In other words, they want immigrants, preferably young, illegal Hispanic males in their prime picking years. Graham’s proposal would let employers pre-select foreign workers. The number of older domestic workers, including women, would fall sharply.

During an interview with the Chicago Tribune, a Georgia Vidalia onion grower captured the essence of American growers’ contempt for domestic workers: “If we had a bunch of American workers, we’d have to hire someone like a personnel director to deal with the problems. The people we have now, they come to work. They don’t have kids to pick up from school or to take to the doctor. They don’t have child support issues. They don’t ask to leave early for this and that. They don’t call in sick. If you say to them, “Today we need to work 10 hours,’ they don’t say anything.”

Wittingly or not, Graham’s bill condones such views, ensuring the continued degradation of farm workers.

The GAO maintains that Graham’s proposal, in addition to depressing wages, would hurt workers, domestic and foreign, in four other major ways:

It would remove provisions that prevent farmers from terminating workers based on improper productivity standards, such as requiring a certain number of buckets of tomatoes during a specific length of time. It would let farmers adopt their own standards, giving them the power to terminate workers not meeting these standards after a three-day trial. Most farmers would use the high productivity of young Hispanic males as the norm.

It would eliminate the provision requiring growers seeking foreign labor to first actively recruit in the private marketplace to attract available U.S. workers. In place of this provision, Graham would create a federal registry listing the names of legal farm workers. If domestic workers could not be found in a local registry within 14 days, growers would be permitted to import guestworkers, which most would do.

It would not, as current law does, require growers seeking temporary foreign workers to provide free housing and transportation to distant locations. It would let them offer workers a housing “allowance,” regardless of available alternative housing in the area. As for transportation, the bill gives growers no incentive to transport workers or to give them direct transportation allowances.

It would require that 20 percent of guestworkers’ wages be withheld and reclaimable upon the return of workers to their homelands. Schell points out that a similar provision was used unsuccessfully in the Florida sugar industry, where over 30 percent of first-time temporary foreign workers remained in the United States illegally following the harvest. He said that the bill also would encourage thousands of illegals to stay here, further glutting the labor force.

Realizing that the prospect of passing the bill was slipping because this session of Congress is ending soon, sponsors of the proposal attached it as an amendment to the Commerce and State and Justice Funding Bill, thus avoiding a full floor debate. The Senate passed the measure Thursday on a vote of 68-31. The House now has a chance to act before the bill goes to conference. President Clinton has said that he will veto the entire funding package.

Farm worker advocates want Clinton to single out Graham’s proposal as one of the onerous amendments that forced his veto. Such a move, Schell said, would be a substantive and moral victory for the nation’s most exploited work force.