I. The New Braceros

September 25, 2007

"Most of our people are reluctant to take dirty, low-paying and dead-end jobs. To fill these jobs, we need less choosy foreigners or the work won't get done." Forbes 1 U.S. agriculture is today a multi-billion dollar industry, increasingly dominated by large corporations and conglomerates, through direct investments, vertical integration or contract farming. Yet, growers have perpetuated the myth of "family farming" to argue that agriculture cannot absorb the same labor costs as industry. They have fought successfully to exclude farmworkers from most protective legislation and in particular from collective bargaining laws. As a result, the average income of farmworkers is less than $3,000 a year. Farmworkers are four times as likely to die from job-related accidents as the average American workers and their life expectancy is only 49 years. 2 Traditionally agricultural jobs have been filled only by the most desperate workers. Increasingly these workers are foreign, many of whom are working illegally. Because of the growers' dependence on cheap foreign labor, no other sector of capital is more concerned about the government's current plans to curb "illegal" immigration. The farm lobby is mobilized. In state legislatures throughout the country, bills to levy fines on the employers of "illegals" contain specific exemptions for growers and ranchers. And in presenting his new immigration proposals to Congress, President Carter added the reassurance that steps would be taken to provide foreign workers where needed. Growers can take heart in many of the provisions of Carter's immigration bills. A prime asset of aliens, in the eyes of capital, is their vulnerability to intimidation and, ultimately, to deportation. Under Carter's plan, immigrant workers who entered the country on or before January 1, 1977 would be granted temporary resident status for five years. They would be given no guarantees against deportation at the end of that period, however, and the criteria for deciding who stays and who leaves in 1982 could well include whether a worker participated in political or union activities. Furthermore, the incentives for shedding "illegality" by registering with the INS are exceedingly weak: "Why should they choose to increase their future risk of deportation-when deportation five years from now might mean a permanent one-way trip to Mexico-by coming out of hiding and surrendering themselves to the INS?" 3 Immigrant workers will continue to constitute an underclass of workers in the United States, underpaid and difficult to organize. But growers are concerned that the immediate and long-term supply of such workers will be limited by Carter's plan to beef up the border patrols. Likewise, the Mexican government trembles at the possible political effects of closing off the immigration valve. AN ALTERNATIVE TO ILLEGALITY Several options are being explored to counteract any negative effects of Carter's proposals on employers that rely heavily on foreign labor and on countries that export labor to the United States. One such option, mentioned with increasing frequency these days, is the expansion of an already existing program. Under Section H-2 of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 (also known as PL 414), foreign workers may be issued temporary visas to work in U.S. agriculture, when domestic workers are unavailable. Approximately 20,000 foreign agricultural workers enter the country each year under the H-2 program of temporary visas. The great majority are West Indians, employed in the sugar harvests of Florida and the fruit harvests of the eastern states. Five to six thousand Canadians are employed in the logging industry of New England and several hundred workers of various nationalities work as sheep- herders in the western states. A pre-arranged contract between the immigrant worker and a particular U.S. employer is a requirement of the program. While H-2 workers have been employed in every region of the United States, East Coast growers have been the program's main beneficiaries. Today, they are demanding its expansion, while western growers look on with envy and anticipation. The Mexican government has intimated that a temporary worker program would meet with its eager approval. And President Carter has instructed the Secretary of Labor to conduct a comprehensive review of labor needs in agriculture, with an eye toward temporary work programs and the H-2 program in particular. 4 The H-2 program is not the only means by which the U.S. government has attempted to institutionalize the legal use of foreign labor in agriculture and regulate illegal immigration. Hundreds of thousands of Mexican "Wetbacks" became legal braceros in the 1940's under a system of government- to-government contracts. The bracero program was terminated in 1964, due to pressure from progressive sectors. Today, the Carter Administraton says it in no way contemplates a resumption of "bracero-type programs." 5 Yet in many respects, the H-2 program provides many of the same mechanisms for providing growers with a cheap supply of labor. Government-to-government contracts have been replaced by government-to-grower contracts which provide few protections for foreign workers, keep wages low for foreign and domestic workers and inhibit unionization. A CAPTIVE LABOR FORCE Despite the growing trend toward mechanization in U.S. agriculture, which is in part a response to unionization efforts in the fields, many of the major East Coast crops still remain highly labor-intensive. Automatic cane-cutters sink in the mud and uproot the stalks. The slightest abrasion of shade tobacco leaves, inevitable with mechanical harvesting, makes them unuseable as wrappers for fine cigars. Tree shakers can "pick" a whole tree of apples in a moment, but bruise the fruit. Mechanization has been largely reserved for crops that are processed into apple sauce, canned tomatoes and the like. Unable to reduce their dependency on a sizeable work force, eastern growers have gone to great lengths to procure a supply of cheap and steady labor, to keep it unorganized and tightly controlled. Government-to-grower contracting of foreign labor offers the growers a number of distinct advantages over the domestic labor alternatives. First and foremost, the growers have the upper hand in negotiating the contracts. In the Caribbean, high unemployment, political unrest and slow economic growth compromise the ability of these governments to negotiate contracts that can adequately protect the worker. Although the worker signs the contract when he becomes employed, he has no say whatsoever in its terms. A second advantage is that growers can preselect their work force, and hire only the most able, youthful and productive. Workers with political or union backgrounds can be conveniently by-passed. Recruiting agents of the U.S. Sugar Corporation in Florida described a recruiting trip to Jamaica: We'll run through 800 men a day...Three tables are set up representing three stages of processing. At the first table we simply look at a man as a physical specimen and try to eliminate those with obvious physical defects. At the second table, we're trying to test intelligence and see if the man can understand English as we speak it by asking simple questions. The third table is where we attempt to find out about the man's work background. We also check our black book to see if a man has been breached (ie. sent home for violating the contract)...The final stage of pre-selection is the check by the Jamaican authorities of police records.' Once these workers are airlifted to the mainland, growers need only supply housing for single males-crude, dormitory buildings with limited sanitary, cooking and eating facilities. Finally, the contract program offers the growers an inordinate degree of control over the work force in the fields. Workers are contracted to a specific employer-an individual grower or growers' association. Protests over work conditions, meals, wages, piece rates or benefits can mean dismissal- tantamount to deportation. And organizing, the ultimate sin, means asking to be deported. No wonder growers refer to West Indians as an ideal labor force, combining "docility and obedience" with high productivity. UNAVAILABILITY Growers are enchanted with the contract labor system for the reasons cited above. But these reasons are not the argument they use to request foreign workers from the INS. In theory, only the "unavailability" of domestic workers can open the door to contract workers from abroad. Also, in theory, the wages and working conditions of domestic workers are protected from the adverse effects that may result from the importation of foreign workers. Inherent in the practice of this program, however, is a very different story. Under the Immigration and Nationality Act (PL 414), final authority for deciding whether foreign workers should be admitted rests with the Attorney General, "after consultation with appropriate agencies of Government upon petition of the importing employer." The INS then has the responsibility for administering the Act, with the Department of Labor acting as the appropriate consultative agency. Before any H-2 visas are granted, current INS regulations require that the Department of Labor certify that no qualified persons already in the country are available, and that wages and working conditions of workers similarly employed in the United States will not be adversely affected. To prove that domestic workers are unavailable, growers must file a job offer with the state employment service, for as many workers as they require, and offer wages that are equal to or above the minimum wage rate set for foreign workers. This job offer is then circulated to all 50 states and U.S. territories by the U.S. Employment Service. The Wagner-Peyser Act of 1933 set up this interstate clearance system to match workers from one state to jobs in another. In 1951, the system was extended to Puerto Rico, Guam and the Virgin Islands. Growers must prove that no workers are available from any of these sources. What's required on paper is rarely done in practice, however. Critics of the contract program say that growers rarely make a serious effort to recruit domestic workers, and often reject them in favor of contract labor. If a recent case in Texas is any indication, the government seems inclined to blink an eye now and then. Melon and onion growers in the Presidio Valley of Texas requested certification for Mexican workers to harvest their 1977 crops. The Department of Labor refused to certify a labor shortage. But an intense lobbying campaign by growers, culminating in a personal visit to the President from Texas Congressman Richard C. White, led to a presidential directive to approve the request. Some 250 domestic workers who had already contracted with these growers were told they were no longer needed. Examples of maneuvers to hire foreign over domestic workers abound. But the question remains: with high unemployment rates throughout the East, and higher rates in Puerto Rico; with 5,000 workers lining up in Detroit to answer an ad for 50 openings, how can growers argue that domestic workers are not available for agriculture? The answer is that domestic workers are not available in sufficient numbers because wage levels have been kept too low to attract them. ADVERSE EFFECT WAGE RATES Since 1962, the Department of Labor has set a minimum hourly wage rate for each state that employs foreign agricultural workers on the H-2 program. As indicated by its name, this "adverse effect wage rate" is supposed to protect the jobs and wages of domestic farm workers by setting a wage floor for agriculture. In other words, before employers can hire foreign workers, they must first offer domestic workers the adverse effect wage rate; and only if an insufficient number apply, can the remaining job openings be filled by foreign workers. On the surface, this arrangement sounds quite reasonable. Yet a closer look reveals that the adverse effect wage rate acts not as a minimum wage level, but rather as a ceiling on wages offered to all workers in agriculture. Growers never have to raise their wage offer above this rate in order to attract a labor force. In 1977, for example, the average adverse effect wage rate for ten eastern states was $2.74 an hour. If there are no takers at this rate, growers get the green light to apply for a virtually inexhaustible supply of foreign workers. The undesirability of agricultural jobs thus becomes self-perpetuating. Furthermore, the ceiling set by the adverse effect wage rate has been historically depressed by the use of foreign contract labor, among other factors such as the lack of unionization in the fields. The first adverse effect wage rates were established as a response to growing criticism of the bracero program and its effect on domestic workers. They were based on the prevailing wage rates in states employing Mexican braceros in 1962. That growers imported braceros precisely to avoid paying higher wages to domestic workers is hardly a disputed fact. In a 1961 speech, President Kennedy cited the program's drawbacks, even as he signed a bill to extend it: "Studies of the operation of the Mexican labor program have clearly established that it is adversely affecting the wages, working conditions and employment possibilities of our own agricultural workers." In other words, adverse effect wage rates in 1977 are based on prevailing wages that have been depressed by decades of importing foreign labor at sub-standard wages. If one combines the wage factor with all the non- wage advantages of hiring foreign contract labor, the fate of domestic farmworkers is sealed. For inherent in the concept of contract labor is the growers' ability to exert a degree of control over the labor force that vir- tually no other system affords. CASE STUDIES The following articles examine the conditions of thousands of West Indian contract workers already employed in U.S. harvests. They also compare the H-2 program to a similar contract system devised by the Commonwealth Government of Puerto Rico, to supply farm labor to many East Coast harvests. A clear understanding of these programs is needed now, before expansion plans proceed. For any program that attempts to maintain the second-class status of foreign workers in the United States provides employers with the means to divide workers. In August of this year, Secretary of Labor Ray Marshall addressed the United Farm Workers' Convention. He was questioned about plans to expand the H-2 program in agriculture. He answered by saying, "Well, I don't think it would be terribly much greater than it is now, which is 18,000...25,000. I'd be surprised if it's more than 100,000." 8 THE NEW BRACEROS 1. James Flanigan, "North of the Border -Who Needs Whom?" Forbes (August 15, 1977), 37. 2. Subcommittee on Migratory Labor, Committee on Labor and Public Welfare, U.S. Senate, "Migrant and Seasonal Farmworker Powerlessness,"July 1970. 3. Wayne A. Cornelius, "Undocumented Immigration: A Critique of the Carter Administration's Policy Proposals," Migration Today, Vol. V, No. 4 (October 1977), 8. 4. Office of the White House Press Secretary, "Undocumented Alien Fact Sheet: Summary of the President's Proposals," August 4, 1977 (mimeographed), 6. 5. Ibid. 6. Peter Kramer, The Offshores: A Study of Foreign Farm Labor in Florida (St. Petersburg, Florida: Community Action Fund, 1966), 35. 7. Richard B. Craig, The Bracero Program: Interest Groups and Foreign Policy (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971), 173. 8. Secretary of Labor, Ray Marshall, Speech to the United Farm Workers Union Convention, Fresno, California, August 27, 1977.

Tags: US agriculture, agribusiness, immigrant labor, contract labor

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