Guest-worker legislation: Alternative solutions [Most commented]
The guest-worker issue is back on the table. Reps. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and Dan Lungren (R-Gold River) have proposed replacing the H-2A visa program with one relaxing labor protections for U.S. and foreign workers. Smith's bill would let a maximum of 500,000 temporary guest workers into the U.S. each year. But instead of having to be paid the same amount as average farmworkers, they would receive the average of what the lowest third of agricultural workers earn. Our editorial board thinks another part of the bill is even more problematic:
Perhaps the most troubling part of the bill is a provision that wage disputes be subject to binding arbitration. Smith says it's intended to reduce frivolous litigation. But forcing temporary workers, who earn little more than the minimum wage, to pay for arbitration while barring them from recouping those costs if they win would essentially make it too expensive to fight abuses. Currently, workers can sue for back wages and punitive damages. This serves as a disincentive to withholding wages.
Lungren's proposal is a little different. It would let growers pay guest workers the federal minimum wage, not the prevailing one. A deduction equal to the Social Security tax would be taken from their pay, and workers would have to come up with money to cover their housing and transportation costs. On a positive note, Lungren's bill allows workers the option of moving from farm to farm. The editorial board reached this conclusion:
Both bills would shift oversight of the guest-worker program from the Labor Department to the Department of Agriculture, which has no experience investigating workers' financial claims.
Both bills are likely to die an unmourned death in committee because of opposition from growers, a crucial GOP constituency with deep pockets. Growers don't want to see their labor supply threatened. If Washington really wants to help growers andtreat workers fairly, it ought to revive the Agriculture Job Opportunities, Benefits and Security Act. That bill would allow farmworkers who are already here to legalize their status if they agree to pay a fine and continue to work in the fields for at least three years.
Commenters came up with intriguing solutions. Here are a few posts from our discussion board:
Now that's an alternative…
Let's use our prison labor to do the farm work. They already get fed and have health care. Pay them a flat $6/hr -- no taxes taken out. All of the money goes into the bank. When they get out -- they'll have a fund set up to help them start over in life.
Hey -- maybe some of them will become farmers.
Or / seeing as how there are currently over 103,000 criminal illegal aliens incarcerated in CA's prisons and jails -- (each has an average of 7 convictions -- that's over 700,000 crimes/convictions), how about using them for picking the vegetables? […]
Seasonal visas for seasonal work
It does sound like the various bills dealing with the H-2A visa have serious flaws.
But, I will never support the amnesty provided in the Ag Jobs bill. Anyone who has been working in this country illegally, no matter how long, should be deported.
Legitimate need for seasonal farm labor should be accommodated with a seasonal farmworker visa, single status -- no family -- and no path to citizenship and whatever it takes to eliminate the idiocy of the 14th Amendment conferring citizenship to children born on US soil to transient, tourist, short term visa holder mothers.
If we have a legitimate need for seasonal farmworkers, we have a need for seasonal farmworkers, not more citizen farmworkers and their families. We particularly don't need to import farmworkers who quickly migrate from this hard "Americans won't do it" work into work Americans will do, like construction, tree work, roofing, etc. This leaves a hole in the ag workforce that farmers will scream needs to be filled.
This is how we got into the current mess -- farmers effectively making our immigration policy.
Let supply and demand dictate farm wages
The simple truth is that farmers have built a business model that requires that they pay minimum wages and minimum benefits to their workers. This is why they have become dependent upon illegal immigrants. The time has come to prevent illegal immigrants from working in this country. This will force farmers to either move to other crops to start paying workers whatever is required to obtain workers. Simply put, let the laws of supply and demand for legal workers set the wages in the agricultural sector. Before someone screams that we will see the price of food soaring, I suggest that they take a look at the scholarship of Professor Martin of Cal-Davis who has shown that the price in prices will be minimal. This is the way forward that would benefit the millions upon millions of American who need a job.
Photo: Farmworkers harvest strawberries at a farm in Carlsbad, Calif. Credit: Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images