Farm Worker 'Shortage' Stirs Fight Over Foreign Laborers

Labor advocates worry that a bill will allow growers to hire low-paid migrants.

It's harvest time around the country and from Massachusetts to Oregon, farmers are bringing in the apples, pumpkins, cherries, and other produce that will be piled high in supermarkets and roadside stands.

But the picture behind the annual autumn scene is far from bucolic as interest groups and lawmakers wrangle over how to provide an adequate supply of workers to bring in the crops - especially the migrant workers who do most of the picking.

Farmers say there's a labor shortage, and they're pushing for proposed federal legislation that would make it easier to bring in "guest workers" from Mexico and other countries.

"I need 12 to 15 people to help me get the job done," says Walter Gladstone, of Bradford, Vt., whose farm includes 110 acres of pumpkins. This year, that help has included seven Mexican men, provided through a labor contractor in Texas. Across New England these days, some 2,200 legal foreign workers (95 percent of them from Jamaica) are busy loading bags and boxes with apples during that short window of time when the fruit is in prime condition for market.

Farmworker advocates say there only appears to be a labor shortage because agribusiness is not willing to pay a fair wage or to provide decent working and living conditions. They fear a return to the "bracero" labor program that began during World War II. The program was discontinued in the mid-1960s amid charges that it abused many of the migrant workers from Mexico.

Bill seeks to solve 'mess'

They're worried, too, that a legislative proposal designed to tackle the labor problem - which includes provisions for adequate wages, housing, and transportation - could actually make things worse for farmworkers. The bill, already passed by the U.S. Senate, would cut the bureaucratic hurdles now in the way of hiring temporary foreign labor.

Also, it would set up a "registry" of US citizens who are willing and able to work in the fields and orchards. If farmers still need help, they can then request foreign workers, who will get temporary visas. "The fact is, the current agricultural labor system, for both workers and growers, is a mess," says Sen. Ron Wyden (D) of Oregon, who wrote the bill with fellow Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith (R). "It leaves too many workers in shoddy working conditions and too many farmers on the brink of bankruptcy," he says.

Flouting labor laws

Farmworker advocates agree that working conditions need to be improved. In September, the US Labor Department reported that nearly 80 percent of grape growers inspected in California had violated at least some aspect of federal regulations involving the health, safety, wages, and minimum age of farmworkers.

In Arizona this summer, three onion growers and three farm labor contractors were fined for violating child-labor laws. Other recent reports indicate that housing for many farmworkers is overcrowded and unsanitary.

"The fundamental problem [with the legislation] is that there's no labor shortage in agriculture in the United States," says Bruce Goldstein, executive director of the Farmworker Justice Fund, a Washington-based advocacy group for seasonal and migrant workers.

"This bill is designed to allow employers to bypass unemployed and underemployed farmworkers and secure foreign farmworkers at very low wage rates, in poor conditions, and at a status that's best described as indentured servitude," Mr. Goldstein says.

Raul Yzaguirre, president of the National Council of La Raza (America's largest Hispanic organization), charges that agricultural employers "prefer to import vulnerable, young, single males who do not speak English, knowing full well that these workers are so desperate for work that they will not complain when asked to work 12- or 14-hour days, often at less than the minimum wage."

The federal General Accounting Office (GAO) reported last year that "a widespread farm labor shortage does not appear to exist now and is unlikely in the near future."

But the GAO also reported there are labor shortages in some areas and that 600,000 of the nation's 1.6 million farmworkers (nearly 40 percent) are illegal aliens.

Farm groups say part of their problem is that most Americans are unwilling to do the hard physical work required in harvesting.

They also note that when immigration authorities crack down on undocumented workers from Mexico and other countries, a crop's value can quickly drop before replacement workers are found. "This past season is the first time in recent memory that crops were actually left in the fields because of a lack of workers," Walter Kates of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association told a Senate immigration subcommittee in June.

The Clinton administration opposes the Senate bill and its companion in the House of Representatives, but officials haven't said whether the President will veto it. The Senate measure was approved by a 68-to-31 veto-proof margin, as an amendment to one of the spending bills now being worked on by House-Senate conferees.

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