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August 1995, Volume 2, Number 8

Agricultural Guest Workers

Despite strong statements against agricultural guest workers in June 1995 by both President Clinton and the Jordan Commission on Immigration Reform, California farm organizations continued their quest to include a guest worker program in immigration reform legislation moving through Congress. As in the mid-1980s, the growers argue that, despite employer sanctions and high unemployment rates among US farm workers, at least 30 to 50 percent of their seasonal workers are unauthorized.

If immigration reforms successfully reduce unauthorized immigration and employment, growers argue, there would be farm labor shortages that could not be dealt with through the current H-2A program that admits temporary foreign workers to fill vacant US farm jobs.

Critics argue that there would be no shortage of farm workers if growers raised wages and improved working conditions. Many advocates assert that the H-2A program includes work guarantees and housing requirements to avoid exploitation. Growers say the rules make the H-2A program too bureaucratic and expensive.

On July 11, Secretary of Labor Robert Reich held a press conference near Fresno, California to announce that so far in FY95, DOL had assessed growers and contractors about $2.1 million for underpayment of 2,700 farm workers. In a few cases, growers responded to fines by announcing publicly that they were taking corrective actions, but most growers responded that they do comply with federal and state laws.

An important issue is whether the creation of an alternative to the H-2A program would increase or decrease illegal immigration. The Bracero program that gave between one and two million Mexican workers experience in the US farm labor market, and is widely believed to have laid the ground work for subsequent illegal immigration.

Washington State fruit growers are asking Congress for permission to import guest workers for the first time in 40 years. The Washington State Apple Commission said as many as 50,000 temporary workers are required to harvest the state's $ 1 billion-a-year apple crop. Some estimate that 30 percent of Washington's farm workers are illegal.

At a presidential summit in Portland in late June, Harry Kubo of Fresno urged Clinton to endorse agriculture's need for "guest workers."

A University of California study found that the number of workers employed by farm labor contractors in California has risen steadily since the late 1980s. In interviews, the growers said that a major reason why they turn to farm labor contractors is increasing regulation of the farm labor market--using contractors allows growers to turn the cost and liability of immigration and labor law violations over to a third party, and competition between contractors to supply workers to growers has kept the cost of using a third party about the same as directly hiring workers.

Only one of the eleven growers interviewed said a labor shortage was the reason a labor contractor was used.

"Fed help for field workers," AP, July 12, 1995; Jim Simon, "Growers Want to Import Workers--Foes Say Move is Just a Way to Ensure Cheap Labor," The Seattle Times, July 11, 1995. Louis Freedberg, "Growers Push for 'Guest' Field Hands," The San Francisco Chronicle, June 30, 1995.