Just when you thought U.S. immigration policy couldn’t get any crueler or more dysfunctional, along come the conservative Republicans in the congressional “Freedom Caucus” to take things to a new low. The latest potentially disastrous proposal: something called the “Agricultural Guestworker Act” (AGA) that has been inserted into the badly misnamed “Securing America’s Future Act” (H.R. 4760), sponsored by Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia.
The legislation, which could be voted on by the full House of Representatives later this month, contains multiple dangerous provisions for U.S. workers and guestworkers and should not be allowed to move forward.
Among the myriad problems:
The AGA would dramatically expand the existing H2A agricultural worker visa program to include not just field workers, but workers employed in packinghouses, processing plants and dairy farms.
What’s more, and critically, the program would no longer be designed to meet agricultural employers’ temporary and seasonal labor needs. Instead, food manufacturers, along with poultry and meat processors, would be able to import guestworkers to fill year-round jobs, thus displacing local workers in some of the country’s most economically challenged communities – especially here in North Carolina.
Under the proposal, up to 450,000 new guestworker visas could be issued annually, with that number increasing up to 10% per year. In addition, the visas will be valid for multiple years instead of the one year limit in the current H2A program.
Such an expansion would pose huge new threats to North Carolina workers.
For instance, protections designed to ensure that local workers know about and are given preferential access to jobs are eliminated by the AGA. Employers would no longer be required to hire qualified U.S. workers who apply for a position during the first half of the contract work period. The government would also provide less oversight over the local recruitment process and less enforcement of the rights of workers who are unlawfully turned away.
To add insult to injury, even if local workers managed to get themselves hired, the jobs themselves would pay lower wages and offer fewer protections. The current H2A program tries to overcome an employer’s incentive to hire a more vulnerable foreign workforce by requiring payment of a wage rate that is high enough to avoid an adverse effect on local workers. In contrast, the AGA would permit employers to pay only slightly more than the minimum wage for most jobs, and it ends workers’ minimum wage and overtime rights under federal, state, and local laws.
Additional burdens would be placed upon the foreign workers employed in these jobs. Similar to the infamous Bracero guestworker program established in the 1940s, the AGA requires the seizure of 10% of a worker’s wages until onerous conditions, including traveling to a U.S. embassy or consulate, are met, and it requires workers to obtain and pay for health insurance (with no access to ACA subsidies).
Other current H2A protections eliminated by the AGA:
- Workers arriving in debt due to recruitment fees and travel and visa costs would no longer be reimbursed for those costs.
- Employers would no longer be required to provide free and furnished housing, leaving migrant workers who speak little English and who lack credit and access to transportation to navigate rental arrangements in rural communities and then, once housing is secured, to purchase beds and other basic furniture.
- Employers would only have to provide half of the promised hours in the workers’ contracts.
But wait, it gets worse. In obvious recognition of the fact that abuses will inevitably occur when workers travel from abroad to accept these new, largely unregulated, positions, the AGA strictly limits workers’ ability to complain about problems on the job. It not only ends their access to legal services programs, but requires workers to use mediation as a first step in resolving a dispute. Enforcement of the limited remaining protections would be moved from the Department of Labor to the Department of Agriculture, which is ill-equipped and unmotivated to adequately carry out that responsibility.
As a final insult, the bill makes clear that workers who perform these difficult and often dangerous jobs under tremendously problematic conditions will, even after years or decades of employment, have absolutely no way to apply to remain in the United States on a permanent basis. Unlike other workers, they would be barred from leaving these jobs to accept better employment opportunities, thus leaving them acutely vulnerable to exploitation and illegal working conditions and employers with no incentive to improve pay or conditions for a captive and replaceable workforce.
In short, the AGA has nothing to do with “reform.” Rather, it is an exploitive, immoral and un-American proposal that harms workers while giving participating businesses a significant competitive advantage over those who rely on local labor. Surely our nation can do better.
Carol Brooke is a senior attorney in the North Carolina Justice Center’s Workers’ Rights Project .