Friday, November 2, 2007

Department of Labor Worsens Plight of Farmworkers

Interfaith Worker Justice just became aware of new rules that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of Labor (DOL) want to propagate in order to help agribusiness hire more guest workers to harvest crops. The rules, which were crafted with input from farm operators but none from farmworker unions or advocates, would eliminate existing rights under the H-2A visa program for agricultural workers and worsen already deplorable labor conditions.

IWJ has drafted a letter to DOL Secretary Elaine Chao and is gathering signatures for the letter from religious leaders. Here is the text of the letter:

November 8, 2007

Dear Secretary Chao,

We write to you with concern for the rights of farmworkers in the U.S. The Departments of Labor and Homeland Security have plans to propose new rules to relax regulations concerning pay, housing, and other issues under the H-2A temporary foreign worker program, according to recent stories in the New York Times (“U.S. Seeks Rules to Allow Increase in Guest Workers,” Oct. 10, 2007) and the Los Angeles Times (“U.S. lets in more immigrants for farms,” Oct. 7, 2007). These rules are intended to address the reports of a labor shortage caused by increased border security measures and worksite immigration and enforcement, as well as the allegedly cumbersome H-2A visa process.

As people of faith concerned about maintaining adequate standards for all workers, we question this rush to relax regulations and government oversight in the interests of profitable agribusiness associations and farms. Moreover, these rules would go against the express mission of the Department of Labor to promote workers’ welfare and improve work conditions.

The H-2A program as it exists contains some labor protections, which, while inadequate, must not be compromised. For instance, the requirement that employers must advertise for jobs and keep them open to U.S. citizens until 50% of the season has elapsed provides an opportunity for citizens and legal residents to work in this industry, without a mere assertion by growers that no non-immigrant workers are available. The H-2A program also contains wage protections, which not only protect guest workers from exploitation but also help prevent U.S. wages from being undermined and U.S. workers deterred from taking jobs in agriculture. The Administration should not consider lowering the wages and benefits required of employers who claim they cannot find enough workers.

Rather than administrative rule-making that worsens labor conditions, the administration should support the AgJOBS legislation, a bipartisan bill that was the result of difficult but productive negotiations between the agricultural industry and farm workers unions. The bill is a package that includes a reasonable path to legalization for agricultural guest workers, while helping to ensure an adequate supply of labor to farms and balanced changes to the H-2A program.

As people of faith, we are called to uphold the dignity of every worker and every human being. We urge you to work with us in asking Congress to pass the AgJOBS bill and in ceasing to consider rules that would lead to greater exploitation of farm workers in the United States.

We thank you for your consideration of this important matter.

For a list of signatories, and more information about this issue, please visit the IWJ web site.

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