Congressional leaders appear close to striking a deal on key parts of immigration reform, but about the only thing that agriculture players can agree on is the need for reform, not the solution. That means somebody--organized labor, employers or closed-border advocates--will need to bend or be left in the cold.
Divisions were evident when the North American Agricultural Journalists met with congressmen, ag interest groups and USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack this week in Washington, D.C. Vilsack seemed to sum it up by saying that the immigrant ion issue "is broken. Everybody knows it. It's got to be fixed and it's up to Congress to get it done."
Senate Ag Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) echoed the need for legalizing ag's workforce. "In Michigan, too many crops are left on the ground or in the trees because of a lack of labor," she said. While agriculture remains divided on how to fix the system, "it's very very important that they agree."
Unfortunately, neither the United Farm Workers or agricultural employers seemed close to compromise when they addressed the ag journalists. Wages remain a major sticking point.
UFW Vice President Diana Tellefson Torres stressed her group opposes guest worker programs that would make it easier for farmers to recruit foreign farm workers. That just depresses pay for the farm workers already inside U.S. borders, she said. "Who can credibly say farm workers get paid too much now?"
Growers are currently exempt from paying guest workers' Social Security and unemployment taxes, on top of wages that average $11/hour now, something that gives them too much incentive to hire foreigners, Tellefson said. Her organization believes the current H-2A visa program "exploits" workers and keeps wages artificially low. (She didn't mention that growers must pay roundtrip airfares so guest workers return home, as well as housing and other benefits which actually increase wages compared to hiring domestics).
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In the opposite camp are agricultural employers and many members of the House and Senate Ag Committees who argue the current H-2A visa program for temporary farm workers is necessary but needs a major overhaul.
Streamlining a guest worker program is necessary to get field workers on location for just-in-time harvests, they stressed. Some Florida strawberry growers already report that up to half of their crop is rotting this spring, due to a legal labor shortage. More than 60% of North Carolina producers surveyed by the state's Farm Bureau in 2013 said they experienced difficulties hiring qualified domestic workers.
Currently recruiting foreign workers is not an easy solution. High costs and excess paperwork are two of the H-2A visa program's flaws, and discourage many ag employers from using the system.
"It's a very inconvenient truth. We can't solve agriculture's labor shortages without a legal workforce," said Craig Regelbrugge, co-chair of the ag employers' American Coalition for Immigration Reform.
Regelbrugge said bipartisan efforts are underway that recognize agriculture operates with unique challenges, including seasonality, perishability, foreign competition and other factors. That includes recognition that dairy and livestock operations need a visa program that allows guest workers to stay year-round.
He also conceded that once visas are granted, workers should have mobility to move among employment opportunities at will, recognizing farmworker critics who have said that inflexible contracts unfairly empower employers. "We've heard that and seek a system where workers could exercise the most fundamental worker right--the right to leave an employer for a better one," Regelbrugge said.
Another touchy topic: With a more workable guest worker program in place, he presumes Congress will expect employers to comply with a mandatory E-Verify system. So employers will shoulder more responsibility for verifying the legality of workers' documents and workers identity--or face fines for noncompliance.
Ag isn't at a good resolution yet, but Regelbrugge remains optimistic that they will find a way to bridge the divide. "The world would be upside down if immigration reform leaves out a decision on farm workers," he added.
For a recent summary of North Carolina farmer attitudes toward current farm worker visa programs and the need for immigration reform, go to http://www.ncfb.org/…
To follow what farmworker advocates argue in immigration reform, go to www.farmworkerjustice.org.
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