Protecting immigrant farm workers

For the second time in 35 years farm employers are holding up comprehensive immigration reform by demanding a bigger and less-regulated guestworker program. The irony is that growers created the program we have now.

Growers won access to legal temporary foreign workers during World War II not because there was a dearth of farm labor — the war economy had reduced but not eliminated the massive glut of farm labor generated by the Depression — but because the market tightened enough to inspire farmworkers to demand an end to depression wages.

As many U.S. farmworkers struck for higher wages in 1942, federal officials began importing tens of thousands of men (and a few women) from Mexico, the Bahamas, and the British West Indies. According to one farm’s personnel director, “There was no limit on how many men you could request and no justification for the request was required. You just asked and the government supplied.”

The guestworker programs were supposed to end when the war did, but big farm employers demanded and won their continuation and privatization. Growers personally chose workers or used foreign officials to do the screening. They handled transportation, housing, and the repatriation of workers, all with little interference, even as the number of guestworkers in the U.S. skyrocketed.

With growers in charge, guestworkers’ model contracts often proved meaningless because employers had the power to repatriate workers who tried to enforce them. Workers who complained, went on strike, or sought a lawyer could be deported and replaced. Soon farmworkers were being housed in converted chicken coops, piece rates fell so low that workers had to harvest crops at a run, pay envelopes often contained less than contracts promised, and guestworkers were regularly used as strikebreakers.

Dissatisfied guestworkers, especially in the West, added to the undocumented population, which by the 1950s already dwarfed the number of legal guestworkers. Domestic workers suffered the same conditions or left agriculture. The controversy led Congress to kill the Mexican program in 1964.

The much smaller Caribbean program survived but not unscathed. Two secretaries of labor — one Republican, one Democrat — believed it too unfairly displaced domestic workers (still the vast majority of hired farmworkers back then). James Mitchell (Eisenhower’s labor secretary) required growers to pay guestworkers an “adverse effect wage,” a wage above the abysmally low prevailing wage. The idea was to make guestworkers more expensive so that employers would use them only if American workers were unavailable.

Mitchell also required growers to advertise nationally for Americans (even in Guam, Puerto Rico, and Hawaii) before they could get guestworkers. Employers hiring guestworkers had to offer Americans the same terms.

A few years later, Willard Wirtz (Lyndon Johnson’s labor secretary) added more restrictions. Having met American farmworkers desperate for work and an assembly of Caribbean cane cutters too fearful of deportation to talk to him in daylight, Wirtz rejected requests for guestworkers except in two crops (sugar and apples), and required growers still importing guestworkers to absorb the cost of housing and flights.

Some growers got around these regulations by decreasing piece rates or increasing food charges. Many companies only posted advertisements for jobs where American workers were unlikely to see them. Some rejected American applicants who failed to pass physical tests never demanded of guestworkers. Most simply hired undocumented farmworkers. Wages, housing, and working conditions stagnated.

The guestworker program continued but in recent years abuses have gotten nastier. When growers demanded a bigger and less regulated program in 1986, the Labor Department waived Wirtz-era rules restricting the program. Now agricultural guestworkers work all over the United States and come from as far away as Peru and Thailand, though most are Mexicans.

Growers have turned to for-profit recruiting agencies to handle the paperwork, which has led to some of the ugliest human trafficking cases in post-emancipation U.S. history: workers never paid, fraudulently charged thousands of dollars for low-wage, temporary jobs, housed in storage sheds or in flooded post-Katrina hotels.

Most shocking of all: The regulatory system that agricultural employers complain so bitterly about did not function at all (until the current administration). Despite gross violations of H-2A rules in the 1990s, for example, the Labor Department cited only one company (for failing to pay minimum and overtime wages), and did not deny that company’s requests for more guestworkers. Indeed, the GAO reported in 1997 that “the Department of Labor had never failed to approve an application to import H-2A workers because an employer had violated the legal rights of workers.”

Today, any notion of doing without immigrant workers in agriculture is probably fanciful, but under what terms? Until guestworkers have the right to change employers, complain without fear of deportation, bargain collectively, make use of Legal Services, sue in federal courts, and some day settle down like other immigrants, we had better keep and enforce the bad old rules. They were put there for a reason.

Cindy Hahamovitch is the Class of ’38 Professor of History at William & Mary and the author of “No Man’s Land: Jamaican Guestworkers in America and the Global History of Deportable Labor.”

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