Michael Doyle, McClatchy Newspapers, December 10, 2008
Farmers would have an easier and cheaper time securing foreign guest workers under pending Bush administration rules.
The controversial changes to the so-called H-2A guest-worker program could cut wages and speed worker recruitment. They also would relax requirements for providing foreign workers with housing and transportation.
“The Department of Labor is going to weaken oversight and enforcement,” Bruce Goldstein, the executive director of the Farmworker Justice Fund, charged Wednesday.
A Labor Department spokesman said Wednesday night that the final rules would be made public Thursday and published in the Federal Register on Dec. 18, which means they’d take effect two days before Barack Obama is sworn in as president Jan. 20.
Currently, about 75,000 foreign guest workers obtain visas annually under the H-2A program. The program is an agricultural cousin to the H-1B visa program favored by the high-tech industry, designed to aid employers who are unable to find U.S. workers for specialized tasks.
American farmers, though, consider the 50-year-old program slow and cumbersome, and it provides only a fraction of the U.S. farm work force. California, for example, uses only about 500 H-2A workers annually, while it has about 300,000 migrant farm workers.
The Labor Department announced in February that it would revise the program. The department subsequently received some 11,000 public comments, many duplicative. On Monday night, the final revisions, totaling 166 pages plus explanatory material totaling 393 pages, were posted quietly on the Labor Department’s Web site.
The Labor Department dropped some initial proposals that had drawn fire, including one that would allow employers to provide housing vouchers instead of housing. However, many other changes survived.
The new rules would ease administrative burdens by allowing employers simply to “attest” that they’re meeting various program requirements. The Labor Department said this would trim unnecessary paperwork; critics fear it will invite abuse.
The new rules also would add logging to the type of work eligible for H-2A workers, though the Labor Department declined to add several other occupation fields, including dairy.
Agricultural employer representatives stressed Wednesday that the H-2A streamlining and cost savings won’t fill the labor shortfall that drives U.S. farmers to rely on illegal immigrants.