By: Taylor Anne Fie
On October 25th, the House Judiciary Committee passed the Agricultural Guestworker Act (HR 4092), or “AG Act,” sponsored by Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA). The AG Act will replace the H-2A program with an H-2C program, providing 450,000 visas to migrant workers annually. Unlike H-2A visas which are meant for seasonal or temporary jobs only, H-2C visas will allow workers to take on positions in year-round activities like the dairy, aquaculture, and raw food processing industries. Farmworker advocacy groups like Farmworker Justice and Centro de los derechos del migrante oppose the Act, with Jessica Felix-Romero of Farmworker Justice calling it fundamentally “anti-immigrant” and “anti-worker.” Though the Act is already passed, we can continue to fight for farmworker rights by donating to groups like Farmworker Justice and calling or emailing our congressional leaders to speak up for farmworker rights. Here are some of the Act’s major components and how they affect farmworkers:
- “Employers must pay H-2C workers not less than the State or local minimum wage, 115% of the Federal minimum wage (150% in the case of meat or poultry processing jobs), or the actual wage level paid by the employer to similarly situated workers in the same job, whichever is greatest.” Under the H-2A program, wages also had to meet the Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR) which is traditionally higher than the minimum wage for most states. H-2C throws out the AEWR, allowing employers to pay their workers even less. American-born workers will also be affected by this provision because employers can lower their wages to avoid having to pay their migrant workers more.
- “Employers will deposit 10% of H-2C workers’ wages into a trust fund. Workers can only access the escrowed amounts by going to a U.S. embassy or consulate in their home country.”
This part of the Act is intended to incentivize workers returning to their home countries, but it also prevents them from obtaining their full income while in the States. Many will not have access to their stored income for up to three years and must spend extra time and money seeking out an embassy or consulate once back home. This is incredibly inconvenient and unfair for the worker who is already being paid a non-livable wage.
- “The H-2C program gives employers the option of providing housing and transportation for their workers.”
The H-2A program requires employers to provide meal coverage, free or rental housing, and transportation for farmworkers. Though the standards are low and often result in poor, unsanitary living conditions and malnutrition, having a roof and some food is perhaps better than the alternative. The AG act allows employers to opt out of providing any provisions at all, forcing workers to use their limited wages to pay for the basic necessities or live in housing that no longer needs to meet standards set forth by the Department of Labor.
- “H-2C workers cannot bring spouses and minor children, unless they are also guestworkers.”
This component of the Act is certainly the most dehumanizing as it intentionally forces families apart and prevents children from coming to the U.S. with their working parents. It also fails to protect migrant families already in the U.S. and would likely result in deportation of family members without H-2C visas.
- “In order to discourage abusive litigation, farmers and H-2C workers can agree to binding arbitration and mediation of any grievances, and H-2C workers are not eligible for tax-payer funded legal assistance under the Legal Services Corporation Act.” The Legal Services Corporation Act ensures equal access to justice for all Americans, even those unable to afford it. This provision makes it incredibly difficult for workers to speak out against unsafe working conditions and seek legal action for workplace abuse.
The Ag Act is essentially a modern form of indentured servitude as it strips migrant workers of any and all authority, keeps them in debt, and forces them to live and labor in unsafe, unsanitary conditions without hope for eventual citizenship. Though the Act is already passed, we can continue to fight for farmworker rights by donating to groups like Farmworker Justice and calling or emailing our congressional leaders to speak up for farmworker rights.
For further reading, check out:
The Agricultural Guestworker Act of 2017: https://judiciary.house.gov/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/Ag-Act.pdf
Farmworker Justice Statement on the House Judiciary Passage of the Agricultural Guestworker Act: http://www.farmworkerjustice.org/press/2017/10/farmworker-justice-statement-house-judiciary-committee-passage-agricultural
CDM opposes Rep. Goodlatte’s Agricultural Guestworker Act: http://www.cdmigrante.org/cdm-opposes-rep-goodlattes-agricultural-guestworker-act/