Elmer Nev Valenzuela
The proposed bill would make major changes to the hiring and working conditions of foreign laborers on American farms—if it actually goes anywhere.

Farm Justice Labor Policy

Update October 25: This Act passed in committee on October 25 in a 17-16 vote.

The House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday began consideration on the Agricultural Guestworker Act (H.R. 4092, also known as the “AG Act”). The proposed bill would make major changes to the hiring and working conditions of foreign laborers on American farms.

Introduced by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), the AG Act aims to replace the current H-2A visa program—which grants seasonal work to temporary foreign laborers—with what he calls a “more efficient and flexible” H-2C program.

In a statement, Goodlatte described the AG Act as “a new program that provides growers with streamlined access to guest workers and enables dairies and food processors with year-round labor needs to participate.”

The majority of today’s discussion was centered around whether or not the bill would undermine American workers.

Currently, foreign workers are paid what is called an “adverse effect wage rate” (AEWR), which is determined on a state-by-state basis by the Department of Labor. Capital Press explains the purpose of the AEWR this way: “It is above state minimum wages and is intended to prevent wages of similarly employed U.S. workers from being adversely affected by the importation of foreign workers.”

“Farmworkers are already among the lowest paid workers in the United States. There is no merit, or justice, in slashing their already meager wages.”
However, the AG Act would do away with the AEWR, instead requiring farmers and ranchers to pay “a wage not less than the State or local minimum wage, or 115 percent of the applicable Federal minimum wage, whichever is greatest.”

Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) on Tuesday argued that this reduced wage requirement would incentivize farmers to hire foreign instead of American workers, who are currently not filling widespread farm labor shortages.

“In addition, the bill eliminates housing and transportation requirements — as well as other worker protections — which will even further decrease those wages,” Conyers said. “Farmworkers are already among the lowest paid workers in the United States. At the same time, they do some of the hardest and most back-breaking work in the country. There is no merit, or justice, in slashing their already meager wages.”

Conyers suggested an amendment to the bill, which would revert the minimum wage rate to the one currently set by the Department of Labor for H-2A workers.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) supported the Conyers amendment, comparing the working conditions under H-2C to a system of indentured servitude. For example, she noted, the bill would require that all foreign workers have health insurance coverage—while also stipulating that they would not be eligible for health care subsidies or tax credits.

“Taken together, the deductions, along with the 10 percent withholding, not only could provide for below minimum wage—it could provide for no-wage.” (We covered the 10 percent employer deduction, which is deeply distressing to labor advocacy groups, here.)

That, in turn, says Lofgren, could potentially encourage illegal immigration. “Now why would someone come into the United States for no pay?” she asked. “For one reason only: To disappear into the woodwork.”

Across the aisle (or shall we say “chasm” at this point?), Rep. Raul Labrador (R-ID) argued against the Conyers amendment, saying that the Ag Act was intended to restore the forces of the free market to the agricultural guest worker system—and some measure of freedom to workers. According to Labrador, the bill would prompt farmers to compete with each other to provide the best working conditions—in turn, enticing the best workers.

“The bill includes provisions allowing H-2C workers to work at-will, rather than under a contract,” Labrador said. “This will further drive competition for labor, as a worker will be able to leave an at-will farm-labor relationship at any point at which he is not satisfied with the compensations or working conditions.”

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) responded that at-will work has demonstrated to be ineffective for improving working conditions, pointing out “that’s why we have unions.”

The amendment was rejected by the committee along party lines, and further discussion of the bill has been pushed to Wednesday.

Jessica Fu

Jessica Fu

Jessica is a news producer and reporter for The New Food Economy. Reach her by email at: jessica.fu@newfoodeconomy.org