FJ Blog

Friday, 29 August 2014

When it comes to farm labor, immigration policy is labor policy.  So this Labor Day, let’s hope that our collective advocacy persuades the President to create a generous program that helps many farmworker families. President Obama plans to grant some undocumented immigrants temporary relief from deportation and authorization to work.  Unfortunately, whatever the President does won’t be enough.  Only Congress can change the law.
 
Most of the nation’s 2.5 million farmworkers – at least 1.25 million and possibly 1.75 million -- are undocumented.
 
We as a nation permitted this to happen.  A broken immigration system allowed employers to hire new immigrants and deprived these productive workers of  immigration status.  Such vulnerable workers, especially absent a union, cannot negotiate  for job terms as forcefully as U.S. citizens and permanent residents.
 
“We have long waivered and compromised on the issue of migratory labor in agriculture.  We have failed to adopt policies designed to insure an adequate supply of such labor at decent standards of employment.  . . . We have used the institutions of government to procure alien labor willing to work under obsolete and backward conditions and thus to perpetuate those very conditions.”  Report of the President’s Commission on Migratory Labor (1951), p.23
 

The President should offer administrative relief.  And then Congress should offer a true legal immigration status and opportunity to earn citizenship  But that is not enough.
 
“Shall we continue indefinitely to have low work standards and conditions of employment in agriculture, thus depending on the underprivileged and the unfortunate at home and abroad to supply and replenish our seasonal and migratory work force?  Or shall we do in agriculture what we have already done in other sectors of our economy – create honest-to-goodness jobs which will offer a decent living so that domestic workers, without being forced by dire necessity, will be willing to stay in agriculture and become a dependable labor supply?”  Id.
 
We must empower farmworkers to bargain for better wages and conditions.  A starting point would be to end to discriminatory employment laws that deprive farmworkers of occupational safety protections, workers’ compensation, unemployment insurance, overtime pay, and other labor standards that apply to other workers.  Most important, we must help farmworkers organize to demand and win better treatment by their employers.
 
Some agricultural employers demand a new agricultural guestworker program.  They prefer guestworkers on restricted temporary visas compared to immigrants and citizens, who may have the freedom to switch employers, challenge illegal conduct, join a labor union, and vote in elections that lead to policy changes. We already have the H-2A guestworker program.  Many don’t want to use it because it has modest labor protections and government oversight. There is also a recent history of successful union organizing of H-2A guestworkers in North Carolina’s tobacco farms.
 
President Obama should issue a policy that allows the largest possible number of farmworkers and their family members to obtain immigration status and work authorization.  Then Congress should act to grant access to a true immigration status leading to citizenship.  Our challenge at Farmworker Justice is to help farmworkers gain access to any new program and help them organize to win a greater measure of justice in the fields and in their communities.


 

by Bruce Goldstein, President Farmworker Justice
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Friday, 22 August 2014

President Obama is expected to announce his plans regarding immigration policy in the coming weeks upon completion of a review by agency officials.

However, some Democratic Senate candidates prefer that he wait to take administrative action on immigration until after the November elections. Senate Democratic leadership has not taken a position on the timing of the President’s announcement, saying that it is up to the President.

Some advocates predict that the President will create an affirmative relief program for millions of undocumented immigrants who are not a priority for deportation. These individuals would apply, undergo a background check and receive protection from deportation and work authorization for a temporary period of time. The program’s criteria could be similar to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Applicants could be required to demonstrate residence in the U.S. for a certain number of years in the U.S. There could also be application criteria based on relationship to family members who have immigration or citizenship status in the U.S.

There have been some who question the President’s authority to create a broad affirmative relief program. However, many legal scholars and immigration experts have argued that the President has ample legal authority to create a broad affirmative relief program. Such a program will improve the administration’s execution of the law and use of enforcement resources to apprehend serious criminals, such as human traffickers and members of drug cartels, and focus on securing the border. The President’s authority is explained in NILC’s factsheet available here.

Farmworker Justice is part of a group of labor unions and immigrants’ advocates urging the Administration to provide greater protections for immigrant workers in labor disputes. Currently, undocumented workers who win a case for being fired for joining a labor union or filing a complaint for sexual harassment cannot obtain reinstatement to their job; for this reason many workers will not take such risks. Such workers should be eligible for a temporary stay of deportation and work authorization. Similarly, workers on temporary visas have little recourse to enforce their labor rights because their visas often expire before the case is adjudicated and they are forced to return home. Worse still, some employers contact immigration authorities to have workers deported if they join a union organizing drive or challenge illegal job practices. Such retaliation has a profound chilling effect on other workers experiencing rights violations. Granting deferred action to workers exercising their civil and labor rights would send a strong message to bad-actor employers that they can no longer use the immigration system to exploit workers. The New York Times Editorial on this issue is available here.

Business groups including growers’ associations have also been meeting with Obama Administration officials to discuss their priorities for administrative relief. High tech groups are requesting that the Administration make some changes to the high-skilled visa system such as the way that the yearly caps on greencards are counted.

Despite the fact that over half of the farm labor force is undocumented, there does not appear to be a strong unified push by agribusiness groups for affirmative relief in the form of protection from deportation and work authorization for undocumented farmworkers. Some groups have asked for reduced immigration enforcement in agriculture. One growers’ association said that it is not pushing for aggressive executive action because its members do not want to anger Republicans and spoil the chances for legislative action.

Statements by some agricultural trade associations further indicate that many of them do not support affirmative administrative relief:

United Fresh Produce Association (representing shippers, processors and marketers) states: “there are unique considerations that agriculture has to deal with and so blanket initiatives may not be as helpful to agriculture as might be intended.”

AmericanHort (representing nurseries and greenhouses) states: “first “do no harm,” meaning, avoid measures that might accelerate the attrition of agricultural and seasonal workers at a time of worsening labor shortages.”

Some growers assume that farmworkers who receive work authorization will leave agriculture; therefore, the President should not grant them work authorization and they should remain working in agriculture with the threat of deportation hanging over their heads.

Farmworker Justice, the United Farm Workers and many others are encouraging the Administration to include farmworkers in any administrative relief program. It would be morally reprehensible, legally questionable and economically disastrous to exclude farmworkers. Farmworkers who are undocumented suffer in the form of low pay and poor conditions, and their lack of status should not be perpetuated. Moreover, agricultural employers should compete in the marketplace by improving wages, benefits and working conditions to retain workers.

In addition, it is not necessarily true that most farmworkers would leave agriculture upon obtaining relief. Many people make their careers doing farm work and some lack the education and language skills for other jobs. More than 20 years after the farmworker legalization program in the 1986 immigration reform, 2007-09 data show that 17% of foreign-born workers still performing agricultural work had been legalized by that program; many others would have aged out, died or were promoted to management.

Some growers associations are also asking the Obama Administration for changes to the H-2A agricultural guestworker program rules, but one noted that it is unlikely to be an Obama Administration priority. Farmworker Justice opposes any changes to the H-2A program rules that would lower wages or reduce worker protections for H-2A workers and domestic workers in corresponding employment. As explained in our H-2A report, No Way to Treat a Guest: Why the H-2A Program Fails US and Foreign Workers, despite the existing protections, H-2A workers are still subject to abuse. Growers have tried this before. In 2008, they convinced the outgoing Bush Administration to make changes to the H-2A program rules that lowered wages and reduced protections for workers. In 2009, the incoming Obama Administration reversed these changes.

In other news regarding the H-2A program, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, AFL-CIO, has mounted an impressive campaign this summer to expand the number farmworkers under collective bargaining agreements at employers that use the H-2A program. FLOC has been pressing the big tobacco corporations to negotiate along with the growers to reach agreements for fair treatment of farmworkers.

Farmworker Justice continues to press the administration to create a broad, bold affirmative relief program that includes undocumented farmworkers and their families and protects workers.  

by Megan Horn
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Monday, 18 August 2014

Today is the last day that the EPA will accept public comments on proposed revisions to the Worker Protection Standard (WPS) that provides the regulatory minimum for occupational pesticide exposure protection. Other workers who are exposed to toxic substances are covered by stronger protections, issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The result is that the men, women, and children who produce the nation’s food are less protected from workplace hazards than other workers.

Although the proposed changes to the WPS will not address all the challenges in the fields, they are a step in the right direction to prevent pesticide illness. If the final rule includes our recommended improvements, the results will include greater awareness by farmworkers of the risks they face and preventative measures; and fewer pesticide-related injuries, illnesses, and deaths among farmworkers and their family members.

The agricultural industry is working hard to dissuade the EPA from adopting the rules that benefit farmworkers the most. Today, Politico reported the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture submitted comments that “call on the EPA to scrap the proposed changes.”

Farmworker Justice and other farmworker advocates have provided the EPA with extensive information to justify stronger protections for farmworkers. Your voice is needed to make sure farmworker safety does not take a back seat to the interests of agribusiness and pesticide manufacturers.

Please join Farmworker Justice and urge the EPA to protect farmworkers from pesticide exposure. You have until midnight tonight to submit comments.

Visit our website to use our model comments and submit by midnight tonight!
 

by Jessica Felix-Romero
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