The Bush administration is expected to announce major changes to the nation's agricultural guestworker program any day now. Last February the Department of Labor, which administers the H-2A temporary agricultural guestworker program, announced plans to slash wages, worker protections and minimum housing requirements for tens of thousands of our nation's farmworkers. If adopted, these changes would be illegal, put farmworkers in America back more than 65 years, and become a new stain on our nation's conscience.
Our country has a long and painful history with guestworker programs. From the notorious "Bracero" program which began in 1942 and ended in 1964 amid great controversy and public outcry to the current H-2A program, every bit as flawed as its predecessor and plagued by a litany of abuses.
Guestworkers are tied to a single employer. Lacking freedom to change jobs, they cannot demand the living and working conditions their U.S. counterparts can. U.S. workers have been displaced by growers who prefer a more vulnerable, temporary workforce. Too often H-2A guestworkers are cheated out of wages by unscrupulous employers and blacklisted when they dare to complain. Government enforcement of their limited rights is scarce.
Now after years of failing to enforce the H-2A program's modest worker protections, the Bush administration is pushing an immense, complex proposal to change the regulations and eradicate most of them.
Requirements for employers to effectively recruit U.S. workers before requesting guestworkers would be made so weak as to be meaningless. Wages for both U.S. and temporary foreign workers would be lowered.
By reversing minimum labor protection recognized as necessary for decades, the Bush administration hopes to make the use of temporary foreign worker programs the foundation of U.S. agriculture. We've been down this road before. We know from past experience that allowing employers to import large numbers of temporary foreign labor instead of raising wages and working conditions is a recipe for exploitation and impoverishment.
The Department of Labor should withdraw this proposal before it is finalized. If necessary, Congress should stop the administration from finalizing the proposal until our immigration laws are reformed in a balanced manner.
The answer to America's need for farmworkers is to improve wages and working conditions to reduce employee turnover and poverty, increase productivity, and diminish the demand for new waves of exploitable foreign labor. The changes proposed by the Bush administration would reduce these protections and contravene decades of lessons learned about temporary worker programs.
Bruce Goldstein is an attorney and Executive Director of Farmworker Justice, a national advocacy and education organization for migrant and seasonal farmworkers. More information is available at www.farmworkerjustice.org.