Outsourcing Labor: How the Bush Administration is screwing farmworkers and what we can do to stop them.
With xenophobia and anti-immigrant bias reaching record highs these days, the crackdown on illegal immigrants is underway. This has left many agricultural employers, many of whom rely heavily on undocumented workers, wondering how they're going to get their crops picked in the narrow window of time they have for the harvest.
Growers like workers without papers because they're more
easily exploited: they don't have to pay them as much, there are no worker
protection laws and the workers cannot complain about any of it. But the Bush Administration doesn't like growers
to hire undocumented workers because of the political fallout. So what's a poor heartless conservative thug to
do? At the end of his infamous reign, King George has
a proposal: help the growers get workers nearly
as easily exploitable as undocumented workers but in a perfectly legal,
government-sanctioned way. How? Through overhauling the H-2A agricultural
Last week the Department of Labor and the Department of Homeland Security held a joint press conference to announce their plans to change the H-2A program to make it easier for growers to use. Their proposal will be the biggest overhaul in twenty years and it would slash wages, reduce minimum housing standards and lower worker protections. The idea is to discourage growers from hiring undocumented workers and encourage them to instead import cheap foreign labor to harvest our nation's crops.
There is a shortage of agriculture workers in the US. Right-wing pundits will say this is because U.S. citizens and legal residents don't want to do such miserable work, as if people in poor countries are born with a gene that inclines them towards sweatshops and hard outdoor labor. The reality is no one, no matter what country they're born in, wants to do such back-breaking work for the low wages currently offered by the growers if they have other options.
Most of us learned in fifth grade that a free market system is governed by the law of supply and demand. When supply is down and demand is high, the price goes up. Agricultural work is hard, sweaty work; hard, sweaty work attracts fewer applicants. Instead of telling the growers to play by the rules of capitalism and offer higher wages and better working conditions if they want to attract the workers they need, the DOL is saying we'll help you bring in workers from poor countries whose citizens are so screwed by the globalization of neoliberal economics that they will work for wages lower than any US worker could possibly afford.
And U.S. workers are not the only ones getting the short end of the stick here. Workers in the H-2A program come in on visas which are tied to their employment status through a particular employer. If their employer turns out to be less than honest they can't just leave. This is why guestworkers are nearly as exploitable as undocumented workers. There is very little government oversight, worker protection laws are nearly non-existent and enforcement of what laws there do exist is scant. A recent report from the Southern Poverty Law Center, Close to Slavery [pdf file] provides abundant evidence of this. According to House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel, "This guestworker program's the closest thing I've ever seen to slavery".
The irony here would be amusing if it were not so painful. The Department of Labor is supposed to protect workers, not help employers take them for all their worth (which is apparently not very much).
The Administration's proposed changes have now been published in the Federal Registry. There is a 45 day public comment before they take effect. If they do go through, they will have a very real and devastating impact on many people's lives. We must do everything we can to stop this proposal. Visit the UFW's Action Alert page to send a message to Deputy Secretary of Labor Howard Radzely or write a letter to the editor saying no to the proposed changes that would outsource agricultural labor and bring sweatshops to our fields.