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Agricultural Guestworkers

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The labor historian Cindy Hahamovitch on the already terrible agricultural guestworker program that agricultural interests want to deregulate even more in a new immigration bill.

The guestworker program continued but in recent years abuses have gotten nastier. When growers demanded a bigger and less regulated program in 1986, the Labor Department waived Wirtz-era rules restricting the program. Now agricultural guestworkers work all over the United States and come from as far away as Peru and Thailand, though most are Mexicans.

Growers have turned to for-profit recruiting agencies to handle the paperwork, which has led to some of the ugliest human trafficking cases in post-emancipation U.S. history: workers never paid, fraudulently charged thousands of dollars for low-wage, temporary jobs, housed in storage sheds or in flooded post-Katrina hotels.

Most shocking of all: The regulatory system that agricultural employers complain so bitterly about did not function at all (until the current administration). Despite gross violations of H-2A rules in the 1990s, for example, the Labor Department cited only one company (for failing to pay minimum and overtime wages), and did not deny that company’s requests for more guestworkers. Indeed, the GAO reported in 1997 that “the Department of Labor had never failed to approve an application to import H-2A workers because an employer had violated the legal rights of workers.”

Farm labor is something we rarely think about. If we do, it’s usually in context of the United Farm Workers with the assumption that things are somehow better now for farmworkers than 40 years ago. That’s not by and large true. Abuses are rampant, regulation is lax. Particularly as many of our big farming zones are in places we don’t usually see (naturally enough since they are thinly settled regions far from cities. Though is can also be true, say, in the Willamette Valley 30 miles south of Portland), the conditions of agricultural labor remain far from our consciousness. It’s not that a guestworker program theoretically couldn’t work. But given our underfunded regulatory agencies that are usually captured by corporate interests, there just isn’t much precedent that such programs can protect worker rights.

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