Statement by SfAA Regarding
"The Agricultural Job-Opportunity
Benefits and Security Act of 1998"

September 1998

The Society for Applied Anthropology requests the House-Senate conferees not include the "Agricultural Job-Opportunity Benefits and Security Act of 1998" in the Commerce, Justice, and State Department Appropriations bill. We base this on the results of detailed scientific research in many U.S. agricultural locations. Anthropological research with farmers and farmworkers indicates that a number of provisions of the "Act" are flawed, and will not work in real-world farm conditions as envisioned in the legislation. We are also concerned about the financial and social cost to local governments and communities of an inadequately-prepared program, especially because it has a provision that will lead from temporary visas to permanent immigrant status. Since the U.S. currently has a temporary immigrant agricultural labor program, H-2A, with time tested provisions, this "Act" does not have to be rushed through. Consultation with researchers in the field of agricultural labor will help craft a better bill for future consideration.

Our review is written as a critical comparison of key provisions of the new "Act" with the existing H-2A program. We find four major areas where the new act compares unfavorably with H-2A, and we also discuss successful models for resolving farmers' labor needs.

1. Wage Rates. The "Act" mandates wage rates based on group piece rates, which opens the door for establishing wages below the minimum wage for workers who fail to reach "average" rates. In the current sugar industry, this has become a major point of contention, as "ticket writers" routinely undervalued rows of sugar cane and then adjusted records of hourly wages to make it seem as though workers worked fewer hours than they had. In some cases, workers complied with and even requested this from ticket writers, fearing that if their piece rates were too low they would not be allowed to return in future years (GAO, Report on the Use of Temporary Foreign Workers in the Florida Sugar Cane Industry, 1991). This places pressures on workers to agree to productivity standards they cannot achieve, and gives growers a chance to cut qualified domestic workers from the registry who cannot, supposedly, achieve these high productivity standards. We recommend that future legislation establish standard minimum wages for individuals, with piece rates designed to encourage earnings and productivity above that.

2. Housing. Housing provided under the H-2 program must be inspected by local agricultural safety personnel, and tends to be more secure and adequate (though still often low quality) than housing provided by labor contractors. The "Act" permits employers to opt out of housing provision by providing a non-metropolitan area housing allowance. Research indicates that workers treat housing allowances as income. Housing amounts to around 25% of a workers' income in areas where growers will not provide housing. Without definite housing provisions in the "Act", it is likely that guestworkers will experience various kinds of rural housing insecurity observed by field researchers: sponging off relatives and friends, crowding, sleeping in shifts, sporadic or chronic homelessness, etc. This will add to the burden of local government and charity in farming areas (Fitchen, "On the Edge of Homelessness; Rural Poverty and Housing Insecurity," Rural Sociology 1992). We recommend that future legislation follow the better practices within the H-2A housing provisions.

3. Recruitment. The "Act's" proposal to create job registries for the recruitment of domestic farmworkers (and to prove a shortage exists for recruitment of immigrant workers), while believable on paper, is unlikely to work in real-world situations. Research demonstrates that recruitment in farmwork is overwhelmingly through networks, labor contracting, and street corner/bus-station shape-ups. We cannot expect those interested in farm work to visit employment offices to find work. A major study of farmwork (Griffith and Kissam, Working Poor, 1995, Temple University Press) found that fewer than two percent of farmworkers had ever visited a government office to find work. This means that a job registry system designed to give job opportunities to domestic workers is unlikely to include them adequately. It also means an administrative nightmare for the Department of Labor, including using the registry retroactively to confirm workers in jobs (including immigrants) that they have already taken, and even already completed. We recommend close work with agricultural labor experts and the Department of Labor to identify a more workable employment assignment and tracking system.

4. Work Guarantees. One of the most important ways to make farmwork viable as a livelihood is the ability to secure continued work through the year. The "Act" guarantees no minimum amount of yearly work. The current work guarantees for H-2 workers (3/4th of the season, barring Acts of God) are important in creating a secure work environment for farmworkers and in making sure that growers work to keep their farmworkers from long stretches of idleness. It also ensures that farmers plan so they do not have a surplus of workers. While many farmwork jobs (e.g. trimming Christmas trees) are high-paying, farm work generally results in low annual wages due to its sporadic nature. Without work guarantees, it becomes possible to import an oversupply of workers who may finish quickly and then remain idle for long periods of time. This can become a serious burden on local governments, charities, and housing facilities (see Griffith and Kissam, Working Poor, cited above). We recommend that the H-2A provisions be viewed as a minimum level of acceptable work guarantees for future legislation.

5. Permanent Immigration Effects. Because the "Act" will potentially lead to permanent legal immigration through the provision for including in the employment-based immigration preference allocation those temporary migrants who have worked six months in each of four years, its provisions are particularly important to the long-term social and cultural development of immigrants in the U.S. The flawed provisions in the areas of work guarantees, wage rates, and housing may put these new permanent immigrants off to a troubled start. Legislation should raise rather than lower the standards of housing, wages, and annual income for immigrants, because these in turn shape the adaptive trajectory of immigrants in American society (e.g., Benson in Lamphere, Stepick, and Grenier, eds., Newcomers in the Workplace, 1994, Temple University Press). We consider this an important reason for not rushing to pass this "Act" now.

6. Alternatives to this Act. Experienced researchers recognize the need for rapid and adequate labor supplies especially in short-season, perishable crops. Often such short season crops have limited appeal to farmworkers, who are motivated more my stabilizing their annual incomes than by the often high but short-term wages of crops like berries. If farmers with such crops were unable to continue in these businesses, there would be a serious loss of economic and ecological diversity. Thus, we take seriously the need to craft an alternative labor program that will benefit farmers and farmworkers both. The Canadian guestworker program with Mexico is an example of a successful program with stronger housing, wage, and savings provisions than the proposed "Act," that at the same time has been very popular with farmers. The Canadian program also has had the side-effect of stabilizing immigration from Mexico by promoting Mexican development (Colby, From Oaxaca to Ontario: Mexican Contract Labor in Canada and the Impact at Home, 1997, California Institute of Rural Studies). The Canadian model and the accumulated improvements in administering the H-2A can provide an model for legislating a more tightly monitored labor program that responds to the legitimate needs of farmers without watering down protections for farmworkers.

7. Conclusion. Working with experts in farm labor and applied and academic anthropologists, a better temporary/permanent immigrant agriculture labor program can be crafted. We recommend that the relevant congressional committee staffs work with the Society for Applied Anthropology and other scholarly organizations to identify capable, policy-experienced experts in these areas.