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Canada solves guestworker puzzle

Published on October 26, 2012 3:01AM

Last changed on November 23, 2012 9:30AM

Rik Dalvit/For the Capital Press

Rik Dalvit/For the Capital Press

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The United States of America can put a man on the moon but can't come up with an efficient or cost-effective way to help farmers find someone to pick apples.

Because most U.S. citizens are unwilling to do the job, farmers are forced to recruit workers from Mexico and elsewhere. To do that, though, requires them to run a regulatory gauntlet called the H-2A program.

The goal of H-2A is simple. If a farmer can't find enough domestic workers to harvest a crop, he can apply to the federal government, which will allow him to hire workers from outside the country. The workers travel to the U.S., pick apples -- or perform other types of temporary work -- and go home.

Simple enough, one would think. Except a recent report by the Government Accountability Office shows that, in many cases, the federal government appears to be incapable of fulfilling its obligations. It missed its own deadlines for processing H-2A applications 37 percent of the time in 2011, according to the GAO. That means it was up to farmers to make up the lost time -- or suffer the consequences of not having enough workers.

Having foreign guestworkers is critical to agriculture. Farmers on the West Coast report they are short 20 percent of the workers they need to harvest their crops and do field work. In California, the shortage is the worst since 1998, according to Manuel Cunha, head of the Nisei Farmers League in Fresno.

Three federal departments -- Homeland Security, State and Labor -- process H-2A applications, which are burdensome, expensive and overly complicated. Combined with an administration that works to discourage H-2A workers because of political concerns, the situation would seem to be untenable. Under the administration of President Barack Obama, H-2A applications are down 14 percent, presumably because the process has gotten so difficult.

"The H-2A application process consists of a series of sequential steps conducted by varied agencies, no one of which bears responsibility for monitoring or assessing the performance of the process as a whole," the GAO reported. "Negotiating this largely paper-based process can be time-consuming, complex and challenging for employers."

If there's a better way, it has escaped Congress and the U.S. government's best and brightest. Ironically, all they would have to do to find a better temporary worker system is look north. Canada has developed a system that is both efficient and cost-effective. Farmers can apply for workers and, in as little as 24 hours, gain approval.

The first thing they did was take the Canadian federal government out of the loop. Farmers set up the nonprofit Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services -- FARMS, for short. The organization maintains a relationship with foreign governments, including Mexico's, and makes sure applications aren't lost in the bureaucracy.

Canada's original program was similar to the current H-2A mess in the U.S. Once Canadian farmers saw what a colossal waste of time it was, they came up with FARMS.

One would think such innovation wouldn't escape Congress, the administration or the U.S. bureaucracy.

After all, FARMS has only been around for 28 years.


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