In the last days of 2008, President George W. Bush’s administration gave a parting gift to agribusiness: The Labor Department rescinded certain hiring regulations and lowered minimum wages for temporary foreign workers, undoing labor protections that had been in place since 1988. For two decades, growers had maintained that those requirements, attached to H-2A visas for guest workers, had hindered their ability to keep a steady, reliable flow of workers in their fields and orchards. By contrast, labor unions argued that the provisions, passed during the Reagan administration, provided protections against unfair competition for American workers while safeguarding a foreign population subject to exploitation.
The pendulum swung back in favor of labor last week when the Obama administration reinstated some of the rules that Bush rescinded, which will result in higher wages for guest workers and stricter government oversight of employers. Under the Bush rules, foreign farmworkers often found themselves earning less than state and federal minimum wage; under the new regulations, that won’t be the case. Also, growers must once again try to hire American workers by posting vacancies on an electronic list, and must receive certification from the Labor Department; currently, they simply attest that no U.S. citizens want their jobs and they can hire abroad.
The United Farm Workers celebrated the changes, citing horror stories about migrant workers who had to use their savings to bribe job recruiters in their countries -- an illegal but common practice -- then arrived in, say, North Carolina, only to find that the promised job would end one month later. The Western Growers Assn. deplored the revisions, citing horror stories of farmers unable to hire enough U.S. workers to pick crops and watching them rot in the fields while bureaucrats fiddled.
There is a way forward, however, that appeals to both sides: the Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits and Security Act, known as the AgJOBS bill, currently languishing in Congress. Labor likes it and growers like it. The bill would allow legal agricultural guest workers as well as undocumented farmworkers already in the U.S. who have worked 150 days between 2006 and 2008 the opportunity to earn a “blue card” -- temporary immigration status with the possibility of permanent legal residency.
Democrats like it too. That just leaves the usual suspects -- GOP legislators who apparently are disconnected from the realities of farming in America. It’s a shame. If the United Farm Workers and employers in agribusiness -- wary opponents on 99 out of 100 issues -- can negotiate a compromise, Congress should be able to do the same.