Goodlatte defends ag guestworker bill; Conyers, UFW oppose it
October 24, 2017
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., today defended his agricultural guestworker bill, but House Judiciary ranking member John Conyers, D-Mich., and the United Farm Workers are opposing it.
In an opening statement before a markup on two bills, Goodlatte defended the bill but noted that he had rewritten some sections in response to members' concerns.
The H-2A program now used to bring in workers "is a costly, time-consuming, and flawed program" and "forces growers to pay an artificially inflated wage rate," Goodlatte said.
"Growers must pay an average of over $13 an hour in some states and still cannot find enough Americans willing to take the jobs," he said.
"Further, growers must provide free housing and daily transportation. H-2A farms almost always find themselves at a competitive disadvantage in the marketplace, in an industry where international market forces set prices."
The AG Act, Goodlatte said, "will replace the H-2A program with a new program that provides growers with streamlined access to guestworkers and enables dairies and food processors with year-round labor needs to participate."
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"The AG Act will assure a reliable workforce by creating a program that is market-driven and adaptable," Goodlatte said. "It will, subject to certain conditions, allow guestworkers to be employed at will, making it easier for workers to move freely throughout the agricultural marketplace to meet demand. It will protect program users from abusive lawsuits."
"The bill will not recreate the pitfalls of the H-2A program. It will not require growers to:
» Hire and train unneeded workers after they have engaged in domestic recruitment and their guestworkers have arrived;
» Provide free housing and transportation; or
» Pay an unrealistic and uncompetitive wage rate dreamt up by Labor Department bureaucrats.
"The new program will be at its core a true guestworker program," Goodlatte said. "It will not open up any pathway to citizenship. As growers learned the hard way after the 1986 amnesty, illegal farmworkers will leave en mass and flock to more attractive jobs in the cities when they become permanent residents."
In response to concerns raised by some members, Goodlatte said he had the following revisions to the AG Act:
» H-2C would become available six months after enactment. In the interim, illegal workers would be afforded no protection from enforcement;
» No green cards would be set aside for experienced agricultural workers;
» The total cap would be reduced to 450,000, with 40,000 visas for meat processing and 410,000 visas for the remainder of agricultural jobs;
» Each H-2C worker would have to have health insurance coverage;
» Employers would have to pay H-2C workers in the meat processing sector not less than the state or local minimum wage, 150 percent of the federal minimum wage, or the actual wage earned by other workers in the same job, whichever is greatest; and
» Any duties and enforcement responsibilities that DHS currently has under the H2A program would remain at DHS under the H-2C program.
But Conyers said in his opening statement, "The 'Agricultural Guestworker Act' is yet the latest attempt by the majority to address one aspect of our nation's broken immigration system. And, on at least two prior occasions, our committee has considered previous iterations of this legislation."
"Unfortunately, this current version is not an improvement over its predecessors," Conyers said.
"Indeed, it is worse than them, despite repeated promises by the majority that the bill would improve compared to prior versions, including by enabling at least some undocumented farmworkers to obtain permanent residence."
"But the current measure fails to include any such provision, and the rest of it has only gotten worse," Conyers said.
"To begin with, the bill replaces the current wage system for farmworkers — the 'Adverse Effect Wage Rate' — with a wage floor of 115 percent of the federal minimum wage — or $8.34 an hour. This will result in wage decreases of up to $5 per hour for farmworkers in certain parts of the country.
"In addition, the bill eliminates housing and transportation requirements — as well as other worker protections — which will even further decrease those wages. The majority itself candidly acknowledges that workers under this bill will effectively be paid far below the federal minimum wage. This is why the bill actually exempts such workers from the protections of the Fair Labor Standards Act.
"To make matters worse, the bill employs a significantly broader definition of the term 'agriculture,' which would bring drastic wage reductions to other industries unrelated to traditional farming," Conyers said.
"For example, the bill defines agriculture to include forestry-related activities, as well as meat and poultry processing. Wages in some of these industries, which include many U.S. workers, can average higher than $20 per hour, as is the case for logging workers and fallers.
"The wage cuts in this bill would threaten their livelihoods. There is no doubt in my mind that if this bill were to become law, employers across the country would immediately begin replacing these workers with foreign guestworkers at less than half of the cost."
"My colleagues on the other side of the aisle often speak of the need to protect U.S. workers from immigrants," Conyers said. "So I am surprised to see them now offer a bill that appears to make their nightmare scenario come true — creating an incentive to replace well-paid U.S. workers with temporary foreign workers at a drastically lower cost."
"Make no mistake, this is a bill that allows employers to bring in millions of new guestworkers," Conyers said. "Without real wage and labor protections, or even the minimal protections found in other temporary worker programs, U.S. workers would almost certainly be disadvantaged and displaced."
United Farm Workers President Arturo Rodriguez said in a statement from the union's Keene, Calif., headquarters that Goodlatte's bill would replace the H-2A program "with a plan with fewer worker protections than the infamous 1942-1964 bracero program."
"A majority of House members are cosponsoring bills to provide Dreamers with legal status," Rodriguez said.
"Rather than advancing proposals for which there is demonstrated broad public support such as earned legalization, including for Dreamers and farm workers, why do House Republicans regress to the one extremely controversial notion of replacing U.S. farm workers with an army of imported guest workers with no labor protections from outside the country?" Rodriguez asked.
"Allowing any American grower to replace any American worker not willing to take a job for much lower pay as the Goodlatte bill proposes would cripple the stability of the existing agricultural workforce and of the industry itself," he said.
"The Department of Labor reports that about half of the farm workers in America are U.S. citizens or legal residents. A fundamental principle of U.S. immigration law for decades — including the current H-2A program — is guaranteeing American workers the first pick at jobs on American farms," Rodriguez said.
"Today, if a U.S. worker shows up in a field for a job held by an H-2A employee before the midway point in the season, the employer must provide that job to the U.S. worker. The Goodlatte measure would nullify this deeply rooted principle. Instead of proving they attempted to recruit American workers before applying for guest workers, growers would simple assert they tried.
"The outrageously low wages under the Goodlatte bill would guarantee displacement of current domestic farm workers, including the half of farm workers who are U.S. citizens and legal residents as well as workers in other allied industries," Rodriguez said.
"President Trump insists it is so vital to protect American workers and put them first. Then how can they fail to preserve the right of American farm workers to get jobs first? This is also why the Goodlatte bill is not an answer to fuller implementation of the E-Verify program."
Rodriguez said the Agricultural Worker Protection Act introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., and 69 other House members "will solve growers' labor problems and preserve the industry by letting undocumented domestic farm workers earn legalization after passing national security and criminal background checks."