Washington Insider-- Tuesday

Farm Labor Issues Remain

Here's a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN's well-placed observer.

Australian Government Plans to Ratify TPP in 2017

Legislation to ratify the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) deal will be introduced in the Australian parliament early in 2017, officials told a recent Australian Senate committee hearing.

The committee questioned officials of the Department of Defense, Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) involved in negotiating TPP. Senator Scott Ryan, representing trade minister Steve Ciobo, told the panel that it is his understanding "the legislation will be introduced in the New Year."

The timeframe means TPP ratification legislation will be introduced to the Australian Parliament after a parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on Treaties issues its report on TPP in December. DFAT Deputy Secretary Justin Brown said despite the uncertainty about U.S. ratification, Australia and other TPP parties are all moving forward with their own ratification efforts.

"We all think the agreement is in our own national interests," Brown said. "We all believe that concerted action by all of the parties to move towards ratification is helpful in sending a signal to the US Congress that the other 11 parties are united in moving in that direction."

Brown added the Australian government hopes TPP will become "a major building block for a regional free trade zone." It would be a major missed opportunity for Australia if it does not ratify TPP and is not part of the initial process of developing a regional free trade zone, he argued.

Russian Duma Reiterates Call for US to Lift Cuba Trade Embargo

A call to lift the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba has once again come from the Russian Duma ahead of an Oct. 26 vote at the United Nations (UN).

In the statement, the Russian parliamentarian condemned U.S. sanctions against Cuba. U.S. politics on the island "over many decades has run counter to the generally accepted principles and norms of international law," including the principle of freedom of international trade and merchant shipping, the statement argued.

It represents the fourteenth time the Russian parliament has issued statement in support of Cuba. Russia's support for lifting the embargo has become part of Cuba's international campaign against the U.S. policy. The Obama administration has taken several actions to temper some of the terms of the U.S. embargo against Cuba, largely via directives and executive action. Members of the U.S. Congress have repeatedly proposed to further lighten if not lift the embargo.

Russia's move came as part of a broader set of initiatives that aim to boost political, economic and trade relations with Cuba. On Sept. 27, Moscow offered Havana 55 economic projects for development during 2016-2020 worth more than $4 billion. The projects involve cooperation in finance, energy, information technology, avionics, transportation, agriculture and other economic sectors, the Russia's Ministry for Economic Development announced.

Washington Insider: Farm Labor Issues Remain

One of the sectors of the U.S. economy most dependent on migrant labor is agriculture, especially for seasonal crops. The sector has struggled with immigration and labor rules for decades. Bloomberg is reporting this week that current farm workers are mainly foreign-born and undocumented, but are getting older now and "becoming more settled in the U.S."

That leaves producers increasingly reliant on the H-2A temporary agricultural visa program in areas where they need to expand their workforces, according to Philip Martin, professor emeritus of agricultural and resource economics at the University of California, Davis. Today's farm labor rules have features that are similar to the old Bracero program for migrant Mexican farm workers in the 1940s and later, he told conferees at a recent conference at the Migration Policy Institute.

Between 1942 to 1964, the Bracero program brought 4.5 million Mexican workers to the U.S. on a temporary basis for agricultural work, a program that gained a reputation for worker abuse and lax rule enforcement that ultimately caused its demise. Now, there are similarities between the old program and today's H-2A visa program, although it's not limited to Mexican nationals, Martin said.

Under H-2A, employers petition for workers, who can stay in the U.S. for up to three years on ag jobs. Employers are responsible for providing housing, a minimum wage and other benefits. However, the program requires that H-2A workers remain with the same employer, a rule that leaves them vulnerable to abuse, Martin said.

Some of the abuse potential comes from dependence on farm labor contractors, according to Bruce Goldstein, president of the advocacy organization Farmworker Justice. He told the conference of such practices where contractors hire their own crews and provide labor to growers, which tend to reflect growers' desires to avoid liability for hiring undocumented workers. He questioned how real producers' complaints of farm labor shortages really are and suggests that the question really is "are people being treated decently and well?" If the answer is no, then maybe it's not a true labor shortage, he said.

By contrast, Martin observed that U.S. growers seem to have a handle on maintaining their current workforces by offering bonuses and job upgrades in machines to make jobs easier.

However, where there are shortages, they use the H-2A program, Tom Hertz, an economist with USDA's Economic Research Service, told the group. He noted that producers' ability to expand operations may be hampered when demand for additional labor exceeds supply. He also thinks that growers' ability to maintain their workforce may be declining—that workers that were once mobile, young and single now are increasingly older, married and settled down, often with U.S.-born children. Daniel Carroll, who oversees Labor Department programs for migrant labor, noted similar trends.

"The big thing that we're finding from the data now is the decrease in the mobility of the labor force," Carroll said. That means not only are the workers less likely to travel between the U.S. and their home countries, they're not likely to move from one farm to another. And only 7% of farm workers are new—having worked for less than one year, Carroll said.

Hertz also suggested that future U.S. farm labor programs could be less rigid, a change that could "speed exits out of agriculture" by allowing shifts to better, higher-paying jobs. For growers, the question becomes whether to try and recruit new workers within the United States or develop a workforce on H-2A visas, Martin said. "If the current situation continues, I think we're going back to the 1950s."

Well, migrant worker controversies are not new, and have long been toxic political topics, but the traditional labor needs of agriculture certainly have not gone away. Nor do domestic workers appear to have become more willing to compete for farm jobs over time. So, machines are being substituted for hand labor wherever possible but larger farms with increasing production likely will continue to need additional workers. How those needs are met continues to raise issues that demand serious, additional attention as soon as possible once the current political wars are calmed, Washington Insider believes.

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