Commentary

Congress moving to make life even harsher for struggling U.S. farmworkers

As Carol Brooke explained in this post last week, Representative Bob Goodlatte (R-Virginia) introduced a bill earlier this year with the inaccurate name, “Securing America’s Future Act.” This bill (H.R. 4760) along with another immigration bill, a “compromise bill,” will be voted on later this week. In Goodlatte’s bill, there is a proposal, the “Agricultural Guestworker Act” (AGA), which would eliminate the H-2A work program. The H-2Aprogram allows U.S employers who meet certain requirements to employ foreign workers to work in agriculture. The H-2A program requires employers to provide housing, reimburse workers for any travel expenses, pay workers a minimum wage of $11.46, provide employment for ¾ of the total hours of the contract period, among other protections.

H-2A farmworkers currently have the protections mentioned above, but with Goodlatte’s bill virtually all of these protections would be eliminated. Under the “Agricultural Guestworker Act,” a new work program would be established, H-2C. Under H-2C wage rates would be drastically lowered, the total number of hours employers must provide workers with employment would be cut from ¾ of total hours to ½ of total hours of the contract period. In addition, workers would not be reimbursed for any travel expenses and 10% of workers’ wages would be withheld.

Goodlatte’s bill will not only harm guestworkers, but will also be terrible for North Carolina farmworkers. With the current H-2A work program, employers are required to hire qualified U.S workers who apply for work during the first half of the season. The AGA would remove this protection entirely, leading to the displacement of U.S citizens and lawful permanent residents who are currently employed as farmworkers. Those who choose to continue to work in agriculture under H-2C would be forced to accept low wages and harsh work conditions having been left with no other choice.

As a current “Into the Fields” intern with Student Action with Farmworkers (SAF), I have been placed with the North Carolina Justice Center and part of my internship allows me to do outreach to farmworkers. Going out to farmworker camps and speaking with farmworkers has been eye opening. During our visits, we provide farmworkers with resources and information about their rights. During our visits I have learned that farmworkers are often afraid to speak out due to fear of retaliation from their employers. Farmworkers are afraid of being blacklisted and not being hired the following year if they speak out. Even if farmworkers are working in poor conditions or are being paid below the minimum wage they would rather say nothing and keep their jobs. The farmworkers that we have spoken to say that they know that their rights are being violated but choose to stay because having this job, even under harsh conditions, is better than having no job at all.

Farmworkers are already some of our country’s most vulnerable workers yet provisions like the AGA target them. Farmworkers are being threatened with further exploitation and additional burdens are being placed on them, our nation needs to do better and treat those who pick the food we eat with the dignity and respect they deserve.

If you would like more information on “Securing America’s Future Act,” which includes the “Agricultural Guestworker Act,” click here to read Brook’s essay, “Worst-of-all-worlds immigration bill would harm foreign and U.S. workers.”

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