Last-Minute Changes to Farm Worker Program Raise Groups’ Ire

John Riley, Dallas Morning News, January 2, 2009

Farm worker advocates and opponents of illegal immigration are blasting one of President George W. Bush’s “midnight regulations” that will make it easier for agricultural employers to hire foreign workers.

They say the changes undermine worker protections, exploit immigrants and set wage levels so low that domestic workers cannot compete with foreign workers for jobs.

The regulation, which makes changes in the U.S. Labor Department’s H-2A Temporary Agriculture Worker Program, allows agricultural employers to hire temporary foreign workers if not enough domestic workers are able or willing to fill farm jobs.

The changes also promise to reduce paperwork and make processing deadlines more efficient.

They are expected to take effect Jan. 17, three days before President-elect Barack Obama takes office.

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The changes to the H-2A program revise the wages for temporary workers from the current standard to one based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment Survey in order to make the H-2A program comparable with other guest-worker programs, a Labor Department memo said.

That means that wages will be set using a multiple-tier system based on local market rates.

Other changes provide employers additional time to search for domestic workers, lessen the burden of proof on employers seeking H-2A visas for foreign workers they wish to hire and reduce the application forms and filings an employer must complete.

Labor Department officials say the changes are needed to provide agricultural employers with workers in a timely fashion so that crops can be harvested.

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Additionally, Goldstein [Bruce Goldstein of the Washington, D.C.-based Farmworker Justice Fund] said, the new regulations weaken worker protections because employers can now claim they have fulfilled the program’s requirements instead of having to provide evidence of their compliance before their visa requests are approved.

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Mehlman said that by continuously adding foreign workers to their employment rolls and paying them according to the prevailing wage, employers undercut the need for domestic workers by relying on a steady stream of immigrants who can be easily replaced if they complain. Employers’ actions also cap wages at such low rates that Americans can’t compete for agricultural jobs.

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