In Florida cane fields, immigration reform bill is hot topic

Saying that it is little more than legal slavery, American farm-worker groups are organizing opposition to a provision in the Simpson-Mazzoli immigration reform bill which would greatly increase the number of foreign workers temporarily allowed to enter the United States.

That bill has passed the Senate, but it faces a vote in the House of Representatives after Congress reconvenes later this month.

Now, about 10,000 workers, mostly from Jamaica, are allowed into the US every year to cut Florida sugar cane and to pick apples. When the work is done, they are sent home.

Farm-worker groups estimate that under the Simpson-Mazzoli formula, the number of guest workers would grow to more than 350,000, and say these would displace resident farm workers.

Farm owners say the supply of US residents who can or will perform more menial types of farm labor now done by guest workers is far outstripped by the demand for them.

If the immigration reform bill is going to make it illegal to hire undocumented workers, then the farm owners have to be assured a source of temporary labor willing to do menial jobs now done by undocumented workers, says an aide for Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R) of Wyoming. The bill charges the US Immigration and Naturalization Service to provide quickly all the temporary foreign workers that agriculture and industry can demonstrate they need.

Farm-worker groups say that American workers are available for the jobs. They say if the guest-worker program (known as H-2) is expanded, most of the gains made by farm workers in wages, organization, and working conditions in the last decade will be undermined.

The debate is growing especially testy here in Florida, centering largely around the labor imported to cut sugar cane. Cane cutting is one of the most difficult harvesting jobs around, and it survives in Florida only because the mucky soil makes machine harvesting difficult.

Farm-labor spokesmen point out that with the arrival of thousands of Haitians and Cubans in 1980, more than enough resident labor was available to harvest the crops, but the employers did everything they could to discourage them.

That view is supported by a report from the House Labor Standards subcommittee, chaired by Rep. George Miller (D) of California.

''Despite widespread local unemployment, particularly among Haitians, the Florida sugar-cane industry, with the requisite approval of the USDL (United States Department of Labor), brings some 9,000 foreign Caribbean guest workers to Belle Glade each year to harvest sugar cane,'' the subcommittee report states.

''The investigation revealed a clear preference for foreign workers . . . selected among thousands of poor British West Indian applicants,'' the subcommittee report says. ''They can be summarily dismissed and sent home, never to return to the United States, for the slightest infraction or sign of organized protest over wages and working conditions.

''Foreign guest workers who survive the rigors of a six-day-a-week, five-month harvest season provide the growers with an elite corps of experienced sugar-cane cutters that cannot organize, strike, or effectively protest,'' according to the report. ''As such they are more productive than their less experienced and potentially more assertive domestic counterparts.''

The minority view in the report cites a special study by the National Commission for Manpower Policy that agrees with the growers that ''there are severe shortages of competent American workers to meet the harvesting needs.''

The farm workers say the sugar-cane industry now wants only workers that they can deport if they start to cause any trouble. If sugar-cane employers hired American labor that could not be deported, farm workers say, they would have a work force they could not control, and they would have to pay American benefits such as social security and workmen's compensation.

''There's an utter total indifference to the safety of the workers under this system,'' said Robert Williams, an attorney with Florida Rural Legal Services Inc., a nonprofit law firm in Belle Glade, Fla., that represents farm workers. ''As many as a third of the workers are injured in a year, and those who can't continue to work are sent back to Jamaica.''

Farm owners counter that the workers are protected by USDL regulations, which require a minimum wage and health and safety protections.

A minority view in the House subcommittee report points out that that the Jamaican workers do have a means to protest unfair conditions:

''The truth is that the sugar-cane H-2 program contains a complaint system administered by the West Indies Central Labour Organization with 12 liaison officers located in the Glades area. Without hesitation, H-2 cane cutters together with a liaison officer can dispute, and have disputed, the dollar value affixed by the employer to a row of sugar cane. . . .''

Moreover, the issue of alleged abuses under the present H-2 program apparently never came up during Senate testimony on the Simpson-Mazzoli bill in the Senate.

''We spent an enormous amount of time on the temporary workers issue, and as far as I know, no one ever mentioned any problems (with the current H-2 program) ,'' says Arnold Leibowitz, a staff member of the Senate immigration subcommittee.

Farm workers say if there is a shortage of labor, then bring the workers in as full-time residents.

''If these people are needed, then bring them,'' says the Rev. Frank O'Laughlin, a Roman Catholic priest who works with farm labor near Indiantown, Fla. ''But bring them as human beings. Don't create an underclass. Let them come with their families, and give them social security and workmen's compensation.''

But if hundreds of thousands of workers are allowed to be imported legally into this country under an expanded H-2 program, he says, employers in other industries aren't going to sit back and leave this cheap work force to agriculture.

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