Tuesday, December 19, 2017

US Migrant Workers Conditions to Worsen

Immigration arrests have risen 43 percent under Trump, but deportations have dropped. That means detentions are on the increase.

Due to the agricultural labor shortage significant immigration reform  is now being pushed in Congress. The bill proposes a massive overhaul and expansion of the federal government's decades-old H-2A agricultural visa program. Critics say that if passed, the reform could lead to millions of virtually indentured workers.

Under the current H-2A program, which itself has produced conditions akin to modern-day slavery, employers pay for foreign workers to be transported to their farms and then send them back home (often to Mexico) once the job -- such as seasonal berry-picking -- is done.  The American Farm Bureau Federation, a top agriculture lobby, calculates that the number of H-2A workers for berry and apple farms spiked 43 and 30 percent respectively in 2017, compared to 2016.

The proposed reform, known as the Agricultural Guestworker Act (H.R. 4092), represents a worrying coming-together of ethno-nationalist interests who advocate "legal" migration, and corporate interests eager for cheap, guaranteed labor. Non-citizens and guest workers are not the only ones who would suffer under the new program; US workers, whose wages would be massively undercut by the expansion, would also lose out. It will lower guest worker wages to the minimum wage, well below the current wage set by the Department of Labor that is meant to guarantee that guest workers not undercut US farmworker wages.

The bill would replace the H-2A program with an "H-2C" program that expands the program beyond agricultural work to industries like meat and poultry processing, forestry and logging, and fish farming. It would also gut what few protections and guarantees workers currently enjoy under the H-2A program.

The proposed H-2C program threatens to establish a convoluted form of 21st century legalized indentured servitude. It would do away with H-2A program requirements for employers to provide guest workers with health insurance, housing and transportation to and from their home country, and would allow employers to deduct certain costs and the costs of tools from worker wages. For example, if an employer pays for housing or transportation, they could deduct that from worker wages. Shockingly, the bill also allows employers to deduct a flat 10 percent of workers' wages. Workers would only be able to recoup the deducted wages once they returned to their home country, at a US consulate in their home country, which Republicans say would "incentivize" them to go home. 

 Farmworkers in the United States are already excluded from labor protections, but they can still sue their employers for low wages and workplace violations. The ability for workers to take employers to court would be hampered by the reform, which prohibits workers from bringing "civil actions for damages against their employers." 

According to Catherine Crowe, an organizer with the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) of the AFL-CIO, the bill "makes it even harder for farmworkers to bring claims when their rights are violated." It also forces farmworkers to go through a mandatory mediation process before filing a lawsuit. This ability to sue is critical for H-2A farmworker organizing efforts.  FLOC uses lawsuits to pressure employers to sign union contracts. In fact, it was through this tactic that FLOC was able to win a contract for H-2A workers with the North Carolina Growers Association, which contracts with about 10,000 workers and 700 growers every year, according to Crowe. This contract won workers significant protections not enjoyed under the H-2A program, including the ability to appeal to an independent labor relations board, protections against retaliation and more job security.

North Carolina's Farm Act of 2017, signed by Gov. Roy Cooper in July, cuts off a key tool for worker organizing in the state by making it illegal to settle a lawsuit with a union contract. FLOC, along with Southern Poverty Law Center, the North Carolina Justice Center and others have sued North Carolina, arguing the Farm Act of 2017 violates the First and Fourteenth Amendment rights of more than 100,000 farmworkers. They've also filed a motion to block the implementation of the Act until the lawsuit concludes.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Washington) warned the bill that forces workers to prove they have complied with the program's requirements. This, she says, "will lead to abuses. Unscrupulous employers and labor recruiters could threaten to report guest workers for violating program requirements ... forcing [workers] to accept substandard wages and working conditions." Jayapal argued the reform would hurt all workers, and could lead to indentured servitude. "There is no measure in the bill to prevent [worker] recruitment fees, or trafficking," she said.

Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Georgia) is worried guest workers might be forced or coerced to stay. The bill, he said in testimony, lays "the groundwork for a system where they may be barred from leaving." He  goes on to explain:
"As far as the 10 percent incentive to leave -- in other words we are going to withhold 10 percent not of your net but of your gross pay, and from that gross pay you are also going to deduct ... sometimes housing, transportation, it can be food, it's going to be health insurance. You are setting up a situation where at the end of the pay period, there's not going to be any money owed to the worker. And in fact, the worker will owe to the company or to the [farming] association or the farmer -- the worker will actually owe money. And so, with the requirement that that worker have to leave within 18 or 36 months, if their bill is not cleared up by that worker within that time, that worker could be prosecuted for theft of some type, and under the 13th Amendment where you can be penalized, you can't be held in indentured servitude, but you certainly can be held to work off your debt. And so, this bill is opening up a drastic scenario of possibilities. I'm not saying that it will happen, but I am saying you are opening the door for bad things to happen to people who don't have rights, who can't go to court according to this legislation to sue, you have no voice, and they are in prime situation to be mistreated and abused. We should not be walking down this road in America in 2017."

Adapted an abridged from here

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