Somewhat lost this summer amidst all the conversation about comprehensive immigration reform is a little-known bill called the “Agricultural Guestworker Act” (or “Ag Act,” HB 1773) that has already passed out of the House Judiciary Committee. This harmful bill is a thinly veiled attempt to strip farmworkers of the few rights they have on the job while propping up agribusinesses’ bottom line.
Here’s how it works: the Ag Act would establish a new agricultural guestworker program allowing US companies to hire foreign-born workers for temporary employment in that industry. Under the current system employer certification is required, which builds in some worker protections. However, under the Ag Act, employers would only need to attest—on their on behalf, with no outside verification—that they have adequate workplace conditions, recruitment practices, wages, and insurance coverage for worker injuries. Workers would be allowed to move between employers without losing their visa. Also, 10% of a worker’s earnings would be withheld from their paycheck. The worker could only get this money from a U.S. embassy/consulate within 30 days of returning to their home country, and the worker must show they’ve followed program requirements. Furthermore, guestworkers under this bill would not be allowed to bring spouses or minor children under their visa. Finally, federal public benefits would not be available to guestworkers under the Ag Act.
We wanted workers but we got people.
Some of the Ag Act provisions are very similar to those in the infamous Bracero Program which exploited and abused 3 million temporary agricultural workers from the 1940s to the 1960s. If passed, the Ag Act would harm all workers by driving down wages, creating a second class of workers vulnerable to employer abuse, and providing reduced oversight of workers’ rights. Eligible workers would be denied access to cost-saving benefits under the Affordable Care Act as well as social welfare programs designed for those most in need.
Most troubling is that guestworkers would not be allowed to become permanent legal U.S. residents, creating a class of workers exploited solely for their labor, held forever apart from being included as an equal in the country their labors serve.
Instead of adopting the more reasonable Senate bill framework that includes the “Ag-Jobs” compromise (an agreement between agribusiness and farmworkers that would allow farmworkers to get on an accelerated path to citizenship), the Ag Act will harm one of the most vulnerable working populations in the U.S.
Apparently, we want the cheap labor that farmworkers provide without acknowledging the whole person – family unity, protections on the job, a safety net for hard times. Farmworkers do backbreaking work, often in deplorable conditions, and they deserve to be treated with dignity. Congress shouldn’t turn the clock back on them now.