Americans are obsessed with what they eat and where it comes from, and far less concerned about who does the work of bringing it to their table. Farm workers are some of the least visible facets of the food system, legally and socially relegated to a subclass of the workforce, with roots in America’s history of institutionalized racism.
While organized labor movements talk of collective bargaining and card check, agricultural guest workers struggle for the most basic health and safety standards and legal protections within a two-tier labor structure. This week, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis strengthened the floor for farmworkers, though they still face a steep climb on the way to equality before the law.
The H2A guest worker program is founded on the exploitation of workers largely excluded from the safeguards afforded to ordinary workers. The previous administration managed to further weaken that broken system by gutting protections in the H2A visa program. Bush loosened oversight of employers and compliance enforcement; made it easier for employers to pay workers less; and relaxed housing standards so that employers could stuff workers in “decrepit former motel or substandard mobile homes,” according to Farmworker Justice. The rules not only rendered guestworkers more vulnerable to employer abuses, but undercut working conditions for regular non-visa workers as well.
The Department of Labor now plans to reinstate some lost protections. The new rule, according to the DOL, would restore standards for monitoring employers’ compliance, strengthen wage standards, and bolster the state government role in labor enforcement. Other reforms include:
Extends H-2A program benefits to workers in "corresponding employment" (other workers employed by an H-2A employer in any work included in the job order and any work performed by the H-2A workers) to ensure that similarly employed U.S. workers are not provided with lower wages or fewer benefits. Requires employers to provide workers with copies of the job orders no later than before departure, including from the workers’ home countries and to display a poster describing employee rights and protections in English and another language common to the workers at the work site. Prohibits the approval of labor certification applications for worksites where workers are on strike or locked out and protects U.S. workers who are denied employment or laid off.
United Farm Workers President Arturo S.Rodriguez hailed the new regulations, but the policy goal his organization put forward shows the structural constrains within which farmworker advocacy must operate. UFW supports the AgJobs bill, which would revamp the guestworker program and presumably broaden a murky channel into the dregs of the agricultural workforce.
On the one hand, the new rules offer a starting point for improving standards and oversight of an under-regulated sector. But incremental reforms may institutionalize a labor system that many activists criticize as inherently unjust. Groups like the Coalition of Imokalee Workers, which approaches labor organizing from a grassroots human-rights analysis, argues that economic exploitation is endemic to any guestworker program.
The H2A reforms do mark progress, even if it’s just undoing past regressions. It won’t change the basic mechanics of the policy, but at least it helps alleviate the immediate crisis of survival in the fields.
But the immigration reform movement, which often centers on industrial and urban workers, needs to broach those philosophical issues surrounding temporary workers. The agenda that will drive the Coalition of Imokalee Workers in its Farmworker Freedom March in April will not focus on building a better visa system, but ending farm labor slavery. The only way to achieve that is to shift the power structure at every link in the food production chain from grower to consumer, well beyond what a visa can regulate. Whether they’ve migrated legally or not, workers will tell you that employers will seize every opportunity, under the law or outside of it, to ruthlessly wring profit from labor, until the law moves that power into the hands of the exploited.
Image: "Salomon Sarita Sanchez works in a crew of strawberry pickers, made up of indigenous Mixtec immigrants from Oaxaca." (David Bacon)