Yesterday FJ released our report reviewing US DOL’s enforcement in agriculture (available here). The report “U.S. Department of Labor Enforcement in Agriculture: More Must be Done to Protect Farmworkers,” analyzes 8 years of DOL’s statistics on its enforcement of the minimum wage and other basic labor protections applicable to agricultural workers on farms, ranches, and dairies. The report concludes that despite some recent improvements, more enforcement is necessary in order to improve the conditions in our fields. Consumers of fruits and vegetables want to know that farmworkers in the field are treated decently, and law-abiding growers do not want to be undermined by businesses that violate wage-hour laws, but the reality is that there are widespread violations in agriculture.
While DOL’s enforcement is central to addressing and deterring these violations, our broken immigration system is another key factor. As we have pointed out, without immigration status, many farmworkers are too fearful of deportation to step forward to enforce their labor rights. In the majority undocumented farm labor force, this has had a devastating impact on farmworkers’ wages and working conditions as well as the level of workplace violations. Our new report shows that DOL found violations in almost 70% of the investigations taking place over an eight-year period during the Obama Administration. Immigration reform that provides a path to citizenship is key to stabilizing the farm labor force and improving wages and working conditions for farmworkers. President Obama’s November 20, 2014 administrative actions are an important step forward and could reach roughly 700,000 farmworkers and spouses, providing them with both work authorization and protection from deportation. A recent piece from the Center for American Progress in honor of May Day highlights the benefits that President Obama’s administrative relief would bring to farmworkers.
As you all know, unfortunately, the Texas v. US litigation has continued to delay implementation of these administrative relief programs with the district court’s February 16 injunction still in place. Following the oral arguments on the government’s emergency motion to stay the injunction held on April 17, we are still awaiting a ruling from the 5th Circuit. The US government’s appeal of the injunction is also still pending in the 5th Circuit and oral arguments have been tentatively scheduled for the beginning of July. As you can see, litigation – the “wheels of justice”—often move slowly and can sometimes be a tool for the unjust as well. FJ and other legal experts remain confident in the legality of the President’s actions and continue to defend his actions and plan for a favorable resolution of the case and successful implementation of the DAPA and expanded DACA programs.
Congress: Anti-immigrant sentiment continues to be on display in Congress. On Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on birthright citizenship and whether it is the right policy for America. For those of you familiar with the Constitutional amendments, you will recall that the notion of birthright citizenship derives from the 14th Amendment, which was passed at the end of the Civil War to ensure that all of those born into slavery would be entitled to citizenship. Two Congressional members, Representative Steve King (R-IA - the vehemently anti-immigrant member infamous for his “cantaloupe” calves comment about DACA youth) and Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) have introduced bills to end birthright citizenship. While these bills are not likely to go anywhere, it is extremely troubling that this issue is even receiving serious consideration as the subject of a House hearing. The hearing also suggests that the House is not yet done pandering to its extreme anti-immigrant members.
Along with this theme of extremism and failure to heed public consensus for sensible reform, the House also seems to be intent this Congress on continuing its failed history of pursuing one-sided guestworker reform legislation. On April 15, several members of New York’s congressional delegation, led by Rep. Gibson (R-NY), reintroduced the failed “Family Farm Relief Act of 2015,” HR 1805. The bill proposes to expand the H-2A guestworker program and remove oversight and protections instead of addressing the need to legalize the current experienced workforce. The bill would expand the H-2A program to include year-round livestock workers, including those at dairy operations. This expansion would not include any opportunity for the current experienced work force to obtain immigration status and does not seek to address the rampant abuse in the program. The bill would also transfer the H-2A temporary foreign agricultural worker program from the DOL to the USDA despite the fact that the USDA has no experience running any such programs. Finally, the bill would strip existing recruitment protections for US workers applying for these and other agricultural jobs, resulting in tremendous job loss for US workers across the industry. FJ will prepare and share an analysis of the legislation in the upcoming weeks as we continue to educate members of Congress about why guestworker-only proposals will fail agriculture and this nation. On these points and the need for comprehensive immigration reform, FJ’s president Bruce Goldstein published two recent Letters to the Editor in the Wall Street Journal and the South Carolina Greenville Online.
New regulations in H-2A range worker and H-2B programs: On the issue of guestworker programs, the Department of Labor has issued two recent notices relevant to agriculture: H-2A sheep/goat herder and open range livestock workers and H-2B comprehensive and wage regulations. On April 15, 2015, in response to a court order, the Department of Labor published a notice of proposed rule making for sheepherders, goatherders and range livestock workers. The proposed rules are welcome and long overdue, but must be strengthened. Range workers have long been excluded from many of the limited but important H-2A program protections. Due to the politically powerful ranching lobby, there have been longstanding “special procedures” for herder and range livestock H-2A workers. Under the DOL proposed regulations, wages would be strengthened and there are other improvements as well, such as greater clarity about the tools and supplies employers must provide free of charge. However, the proposed regulations must be strengthened. For example, while the wage requirement in most states -- $750 a month—would increase by more than double, the increase phases in too slowly, does not adequately compensate range workers for all of the hours they work while on call 24/7, and does not ensure workers have access to their earnings. Further, there is need to strengthen the range housing requirements for basic necessities such as heating and food storage. We urge you to weigh in for greater protections for sheepherders and will share model comments and/or a sign-on letter by May 11.
Also this week, the DOL and DHS jointly issued interim final H-2B regulations following years of litigation over the H-2B program. The rules were effective immediately and will be finalized following a 60-day comment period. The H-2B comprehensive rules, which are very similar to the 2012 rules, are a victory for US and H-2B workers. The rules would ensure greater protections for H-2B workers during recruitment abroad and on the job, as well as greater protection for US workers who are interested in the positions. Centro de los Derechos del Migrante has indicated concern, however, that the wage rule may lead to lowered wages due a loophole allowing industry wage surveys. More information will be shared as it is available.