Ag Jobs: pragmatism and justice

By Michelle Chen May 14, 2009

Today, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) reintroduced the Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits, and Security Act (Ag Jobs) bill. Though the concept of farm guestworkers, and their rampant exploitation, has historically been one of the thorniest immigration labor issues, Ag Jobs has won support from both farm industry groups and immigrant rights organizations like Farmworker Justice. The bill would expand the H-2A visa guestworker program to provide a more stable flow of farm labor, and it would establish a new program to give undocumented workers a process for attaining legal status. The bill’s reintroduction comes in the wake of the Obama administration’s decision to suspend changes proposed by the Bush administration that would have severely rolled back farmworker wage and labor protections. Feinstein, who has previously resisted guestworker reform proposals, argues that Ag Jobs is a pragmatic response to a crisis in American agriculture—harvests ruined due to a shortage of hands. In response, farmers have been shrinking their operations or shutting down altogether Ag Jobs represents a compromise between growers and workers, and as such, leaves many issues about the fair treatment of migrant workers unresolved. Much of the major action on farmworker rights has advanced not through legislation, but grassroots organizing and consumer and labor-driven pressure campaigns, in the vein of the Florida-based anti-slavery group Coalition of Imokalee Workers. Sean Sellers of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy recently commented on the structural problems intrinsic to typical guestworker systems:

A guest worker program will not address the root causes of slavery. Instead, as proven by this country’s experiment with the Bracero Program between 1942 and 1964, it will create an underclass of disenfranchised workers. It is a subsidy from taxpayers to industries that are unwilling to pay the competitive wages necessary to attract a stable work force.

As long as Congress continues to hedge around comprehensive immigration reform, the AgJobs compromise could be one step toward mending a broken system. To realize systemic change, however, the farm labor movement can’t afford to compromise on the question of justice for all workers. Image: Jamaican workers at Pineland Farms in New Gloucester, Maine (Earl Dotter, "Farmworkers Feed Us All")