Democrats Cut Farmworkers’ Wages to Get Agriculture Amnesty

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 14: Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) speaks at a press conference on Capitol Hill on February 14, 2018 in Washington, DC. Pelosi and her fellow Democrats addressed the need for heightened security surrounding the nation's voting systems ahead of the 2018 midterms. (Photo by Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty …
Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

An alliance of business groups and Democrats has drafted a deal that cuts farmworkers’ wages for many years in exchange for delivering a new wave of voters to the Democrat Party.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), the author of the legislation, repeatedly described the corporatist bargain during the bill’s markup votes on Wednesday:

The bill implements a wage freeze for the year 2020 [for 250,000 H-2A visa workers]. This is a very important matter for employers, [and] wages are expected to increase by another seven to eight percent next year. Under this bill, those wage increases won’t happen.

This bill adds wage caps to prevent wages [H-2A visa workers] going up by more than 3.25 percent in most of the country. Considering that the AEWR rates [Adverse Effect Wage Rate for H-2As] recently went up 23 percent in certain states, this is a big concession. Those kinds of wage increases would no longer happen under this bill.

These are significant wage reforms — a recent report by the CATO institute found that the bill, if enacted, would have saved farmers $324 million in labor expenses in 2019 alone.

Lofgren excused her compromise with agriculture employers:

I would prefer that these wage concessions were not in the bill. But this bill is a compromise to make sure that the farmworkers today that are looking over their shoulder in fear of deportation will no longer face that nightmare. And it is a compromise that allows additional people to come in to meet the growing [worker] needs of our agriculture sector.

Committee chairman Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) echoed the wage-cuts-for-citizenship deal: “Americans farmers are still in business because of these [illegal] workers. … We must find the courage to do what is right, to find a seat at the American table for those who have long grown the food.”

The bill also ensures a federal takeover of the agriculture workforce by promising to provide agriculture employers and investors with an unlimited inflow of H-2A visa workers, who are to be paid at statewide minimum wages. The supply of H-2A workers is needed because agriculture employers expect amnestied migrants to quit farmwork and to seek homes and work in America’s cities and suburbs.

GOP leaders on the committee fully supported the government takeover of the agriculture workforce and fully supported the wage cuts, mainly because their constituencies include many agriculture CEOs, managers, and investors. But the GOP members said they could not support the bill because of the amnesty.

“The real point of this bill is a path to citizenship for an unknown number … [and] we have no idea how many people will take advantage of this amnesty,” said Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA), the top Republican on the committee. “Even if a very conservative estimate that 50 percent of farmworkers are here illegally [is true] … well over a million and a half people will get a path to citizenship … [and] we can expect the number to be actually higher.”

The GOP opposition to the amnesty is likely to ensure the GOP Senate will block the Democrats’ amnesty bill after it passes the House. 

The GOP opposition to amnesty legislation is fueled by voters’ opposition to cheap-labor amnesties. But the legislators’ opposition is also being stiffened by the Democrats’ business-backed policy of using immigration to gradually flip multiple states to Democrat control. In 2018, for example, the GOP narrowly won the gubernatorial election in Georgia — but Democrats expect the state’s growing immigrant population to soon deliver them control of the state. 

The bill’s expansion of the H-2A program is good but inadequate, said Collins. Georgia is “the number one user of the H-2A program — this is very important to me; it is something we can actually work on,” he said. 

The bill makes employers too vulnerable to lawsuits, and it does not allow year-round meatpackers to hire H-2A workers, he said. “Meat and poultry processors were left out … [that] represents an enormous problem,” he said. The bill provides only 10,000 H-2A workers to non-farm employers, he said. The allocation of “a measly 10,000 [H-2A] visas per year … it is a fairness issue,” he said. 

“We would actually come to an agreement here, suitable to many on the right, many on the left, but not all on the extreme left or the extreme right. We have to find a bill here in the middle … and it’s going to come from us in the middle,” said Collins. “I believe this is a missed opportunity. … My hope is that we can revisit this. … It is critical that we do this in a way that actually helps the farmers.”

Through the debate, Collins and other GOP members focused on the cheap-labor need of employers — farmers, meat-processors — but not on the Americans who work in these farms and vote in their elections.

But the bill promise of unlimited H-2A workers would push Americans aside and leave them unemployed or underemployed in company-dominated towns where employers would hire workers from the endless supply of cheap H-2A labor.

The harm to Americans caused by the flood of government-supplied labor was cited in a November 20 article published by the Los Angeles Times:

California’s nearly $50-billion agriculture industry is recruiting record numbers of seasonal [H-2A] farmworkers from Mexico as it confronts a years-long labor shortage exacerbated by the Trump administration’s crackdown on undocumented immigration.

The use of visa-holding laborers has affected the power dynamic between growers and workers at a time when laborers could be demanding higher wages and better benefits, labor experts say. Locally hired workers — who may or may not have proper documents — fear deportation or replacement with H-2A laborers, whose wages are set by the federal government. And the visa holders fear they will not be recruited next season if they complain.

That makes it hard to fight abuses, despite a sharp increase in complaints registered at the field offices of California Rural Legal Assistance.

But the amnesty gridlock is allowing farmworkers’ wages to rise in President Donald Trump’s lower-immigration, “Buy American, Hire American” economy.

The rising wages are pressuring farm companies to invest in labor-saving technology. The machinery cuts farmers’ costs because it allows American farmworkers to become more productive, to get more work done in less time — and so to earn higher wages for every hour of their labor.

For example, the United Farm Workers posted a video of a labor-intensive process for harvesting celery:

But rising wages are forcing farm employers to buy machinery, which can drastically reduce the number of illegals needed for harvesting celery:



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