Over the last few days, negotiations over fixing our broken agricultural labor market have taken their turn at center stage in the immigration reform debate. As Think Progress has reported, negotiations between growers and farm worker advocates to establish a new visa for foreign agriculture workers are stalling, as the “growers refuse to make concessions and are insisting on paying future farm workers less than they are earning now.”
Farmworkers are among the lowest paid workers in the country, averaging only $15,000 to $17,000 per year and the poverty rates of farmworkers is nearly double the national rate for wage and salary employees. Few receive fringe benefits (like sick leave) or employer-provided health insurance and many lack basic federal labor protections including entitlement to overtime pay, the right to collective bargaining, an array of occupational safety protections, and certain child labor law protections.
Since workers don’t have a right to organize under federal law, they need another mechanism to prevent wage depression. This is especially true in a new guest worker program, where employers can reject U.S. workers if they are unwilling to accept the program’s minimum wage rate and where foreign workers who are dependent on their employers are unlikely to bargain for higher wages.
But in the immigration discussions, the growers, represented by the American Farm Bureau, are seeking to replace the existing minimum wage formula with their own proposal for paying foreign laborers. The AFB insists that paying workers 10 or 20 percent above the federal minimum wage would guarantee a fair and competitive wage and argue that the current calculation is artificially high.
So what is really going on? Here are the facts on farmworker pay and what’s at stake for some of the most vulnerable workers in our economy:
1. Employers who use the current temporary agricultural worker program (H-2A) are required to pay the higher of the federal or state minimum wages, the prevailing wage, or what is known as the Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR), to foreign workers and U.S. workers in comparable employment. The AEWR is set by the U.S. Department of Labor based on a U.S. Department of Agriculture survey is the regional weighted average hourly wage for field and livestock workers combined. This formula is intended to protect farm workers from wage depression.
2. But there are at least three reasons to believe that even the current AEWR standard is too low. First, the AEWR is based on the previous year’s wage rates and does not reflect inflation. Second, the wage survey on which the AEWR is set includes the 55 percent or more of farmworkers who are undocumented. That means the survey includes the wages of workers whose earnings are depressed because they lack legal status. We know that those wages would increase by up to 15 percent if they had legal status. In other words, the survey itself is skewed by incorporating in to it the depressed wages of large proportions of workers. Third, the AEWR’s, by themselves, do not prevent growers from imposing very high productivity standards. Desperate and deleveraged foreign workers will accept those productivity demands but U.S. workers would insist on higher wages. So the AEWR reflects wages of people who are involuntarily working more for less.
3. Although the current standard is already too low, the growers are actually proposing to depart from that standard. They tried to eliminate that wage protection via midnight regulations in the waning days of the Bush presidency. The regulations went in to effect for a short time (during which farmworkers saw a drop in wages of about $1 an hour) until the Obama Administration reversed the Bush rules. Now growers are trying to achieve their effort to lower wages by codifying a new “farmworker minimum wage” (as opposed to a market wage).
In attempting to hold broader immigration reform legislation hostage to their demand for reduced wages of the most vulnerable workers in our society, growers must have concluded that Americans either don’t care or aren’t paying attention. Well, Americans who respect and appreciate the contributions of manual labor to our collective well-being should be appalled by this debate. If we as a nation truly value hard work, the meager hourly returns on that work in the agricultural sector should be something to correct, not make worse.
Our guest blogger is Marshall Fitz, Director of Immigration Policy at the Center for American Progress Action Fund