Last month, Stephen Colbert's trip to Capitol Hill set off an echo chamber of debate. Depending on who you ask, Mr. Colbert's appearance before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration was either a shameful mockery of our legislative process or a brilliant ploy to bring attention to the plight of hundreds of thousands of foreign farm workers doing backbreaking jobs that, even in times like these, Americans simply won't do.
I have no interest in bickering over the strategic wisdom of Colbert's controversial congressional appearance, but I do have a bone to pick with his message.
Stephen Colbert testified that he was one of only 16 people across the entire United States who'd signed up to take a field job offered by the United Farm Workers as part of their "Take Our Jobs" campaign. Millions of unemployed Americans and there's only one faux talk show host and a handful of people willing to do this work.
Colbert, I'm afraid you've been duped... although, you are far from alone on this.
Even among those skeptical of the general concept of "jobs Americans won't do" (see my recent post), when it comes to farm work, foreign labor's long been the historical reality and the conventional wisdom. Heck, it was my conventional wisdom -- until last week.
That was when a tip sent Dan Rather Reports down to Colquitt County, Georgia where we found plenty of out-of-work Americans -- literally hundreds -- vying for jobs in the fields. The problem, these folks told us, is that the farmers in the area would rather import foreign guest workers to pick their vegetables than hire Americans.
Labor advocates say that farmers may like their labor cheap, fast and disposable, but it's illegal discrimination.
The allegation itself is rather extraordinary. After two decades watching the South seethe and bleed, I have seen plenty of discrimination in my time. But these workers -- who are of varying colors, creeds and abilities -- claim they are being discriminated against not because of their race or gender or any other discrete and insular minority category, but because of their national origin, because they were born American.
The complaints from the farm workers of Colquitt County have triggered several lawsuits and federal investigations by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Justice Department.
We decided to get a glimpse of the situation for ourselves. Six days before we arrived in Colquitt County, 136 U.S. workers landed jobs with a local grower called J&R Baker Farms. Many of the new hires said day after day, they'd been reporting for duty before daybreak, only to stand around for hours waiting for impossible assignments (like picking vegetables from a field that had already been harvested) and declared unqualified. They told us that the farm sent them home after an hour or two of work and their first week's paychecks amounted to less than $50. By week two, nearly all of the American workers had either quit or been fired. Meanwhile, foreign guest workers -- who were imported by the farm using a federal visa program known as the H-2A program -- were out in the in fields picking away.
The H-2A agricultural guest worker program gives farmers a legal way to hire foreign workers when they can't find enough Americans. In order to participate, farmers must comply with rules intended to protect domestic jobs and wages. Not only must they try to recruit Americans first, they must also pledge to pay their guest workers what's called a prevailing wage, the market rate determined by the federal government.
But the labor "shortage," worker advocates say, is often merely a fiction drummed up by farmers seeking to justify hiring guest workers, who -- because their legal status in the United States is contingent upon maintaining employment -- are easier to overwork and underpay.
"They're using the guest worker program not as a temporary replacement, but as a permanent workforce," said Dawson Morton, an attorney with Georgia Legal Services who represents farm workers foreign and domestic. "They don't want any local workers that apply. But they're not allowed to displace American workers for foreign workers and so that puts them in an awkward situation and they're having to basically give the American workers the runaround until they quit or give up so that the farm can keep its foreign workforce, which it prefers."
But Roy Baker, an attorney for local growers, including J&R Baker Farms, said his clients simply can not find local workers who will actually do the work.
"You can ask any of these guys that do these H2A programs, they would much rather not have to import any labor. It costs them a lot more," he said. " But when they get sent convicts and other people like this that come out here at a point of a gun...and they just come out here and act like total heathens and savages, it's just a no-win situation."
Baker says the problems stem from government intervention in the market. Farmers find themselves forced, he says, to choose between hiring undocumented workers or using the H-2A program, which requires a "big charade" of cycling through local applicants who aren't willing or able to do the stoop labor. Having a hiring preference for U.S. workers might make sense for politicians on the stump, Baker said, but it creates huge headaches and dizzying legal hoops for farmers who are simply trying to get their vegetables picked.
Especially given the current rush of job seekers in Colquitt County, the paperwork alone can overwhelm a small business, according to Sheila Booth, who handles the payroll for the two brothers who own J&R Baker Farms.
"I was one of the main Americans that used to raise Cain about internationals comin' here and takin' Americans' jobs until I started workin' for the boys." Booth said. "I don't know why the boys don't go postal. I'm almost to that point."
Local farms are being pushed to the breaking point with all the red tape and government scrutiny, Baker said.
"It's a fear of who's showin' up next. Is it gonna be feds? Is it gonna be state? Is it gonna a combination of both? These small, family-type farmers -- they have no voice. "
Whether or not it is truly accurate to say these are small farms getting pushed out of business by big government, (data compiled by the Environmental Working Group show that of the nearly $220 million in government subsidies and payments Colquitt County farms have received since 1995, 79 percent has gone to the biggest farms) they do have a voice in Washington -- a powerful voice.
Among the 45,000 people who call Colquitt County home is Senator U.S. Senator Saxby Chambliss, the ranking Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee.
In an interview with Dan Rather Reports, Senator Chambliss said it would make no sense for H-2A farmers to discriminate against American workers and he's never heard such allegations.
"When workers say they're willing to come work, then I would say they're going to have every opportunity to do the job," he said. "I'm just confident that our farmers are not trying to run any local workers off, because it's to their advantage to have local workers, versus going through this maze they have to traverse to get [guest workers]."
Chambliss sponsored a bill two weeks ago that would reduce all that red tape for farmers who use the H-2A program.
"It's worked well over the years, but it's very expensive on the farmer to participate in H2A," he said. "Their competitor down the road that hires illegal workers is paying minimum wage, so there's a pretty significant discrepancy right there from a competition standpoint."
Chambliss has his sights set on the estimated 50 to 70 percent of the 1.2 million farm workers in the country who are undocumented. He says they pose not only a national security threat, they also undercut farmers who rely on a legal workforce -- foreign or domestic.
"Whether you're manufacturing widgets, or whether you're growing cucumbers, your goal is to get your product to the marketplace, and sell it at the very highest price and to try to keep the cost of the production of that product to as low as you can possibly get it, " Sen. Chambliss said. "That spread is what allows people to live the American dream."
Between what the Senator, Colbert, and unemployed Americans say about the "Guest Worker" policy, there is an important story down on the farm.
It's a debate that generates strong feelings on all sides (as we've seen on our Facebook page). No matter which side you're on however, I hope we can all agree it's a debate worth having.
Dan Rather Reports airs Tuesdays on HDNet at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. ET. This episode is also available on iTunes.
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