Rules for Foreign Farm Workers Tightened

P.J. Huffstutter, Los Angeles Times, February 15, 2010

In a move that is sure to have the agricultural industry grimacing and labor-rights advocates cheering, the Labor Department is reversing a Bush administration rule that allowed farmers an easier path to hiring temporary or seasonal foreign workers.

The department has issued new regulations that will force growers to make more of an effort to find Americans to fill these jobs of picking crops and other harvest-time roles, as well as increase pay and provide more job-safety protections for the thousands of foreign farm workers who are hired.

The old rule, which affected the H-2A guest-worker program, was adopted just before President George W. Bush left office. The Labor Department suspended that regulation last May.

The new rule, scheduled to take effect March 15, will increase the average pay for temporary farm workers by nearly a dollar per hour. Farmers also will be required to list their job openings on a new online job registry, while state work force agencies must inspect worker housing before employers can get the nod to hire foreign laborers.

Department officials said last week the changes were designed to protect agriculture’s most at-risk workers.

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The availability of work in agriculture is clear, say department officials: During the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, employers filed 8,150 labor certification applications requesting 103,955 H-2A workers for temporary agricultural work.

The Labor Department certified 94 percent of the applications, for a total of 86,014 workers.

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Farmers have said they need help easing the hurdles to bring in foreign workers to harvest crops–jobs, they say, domestic workers don’t want and refuse to take. Farm groups have spent months trying to fight efforts by the Obama administration to curtail or modify the rule.

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