Farmworker housing may be problem in immigration bill
By DAN WHEAT
While supporting the U.S. Senate comprehensive immigration bill as a great improvement over current law, the director of the Washington Farm Labor Association points to housing, transportation, wages and a visa cap as potential problems.
"Farmers made out OK and farmworkers made out great," said Dan Fazio, association director.
The bill is a vast improvement over the 2007 AgJOBS bill and the current H-2A guestworker visa program with a new visa program that's much closer to a simple, market-based system the Agricultural Workforce Coalition wanted, Fazio said.
Undocumented farmerworkers already in the country received far better treatment than other undocumented workers with a $400 instead of $1,000 fine and a quicker path to green card permanent legal residency status, Fazio said.
Other workers could make that an issue as the bill moves forth, but farmworkers were well represented in the bill's negotiations, he said.
Washington state's heavily labor-dependent tree fruit industry is ahead of ag industries in other states in being prepared for the bill, he said. Washington growers are already accustomed to the highest state minimum wage in the nation and, while short of housing, have more of it than they once did because of increased use of the H-2A guestworker program, Fazio said.
Agriculture's starting point in negotiations was that employers shouldn't have to provide housing, Fazio said. An acceptable alternative was for employers to provide housing for contract W-2 visa guestworkers only, he said. W-2 are those on contract with specific employers.
But the bill requires that and employer-paid housing for W-3 guestworkers, he said. W-3 are at-will employees and allowed to move among registered employers who also agree to hire domestic workers.
Domestic workers will see that as a benefit they didn't get and should be compensated for, he said. Housing for foreign workers but not domestic could be seen as discriminatory by worker advocates and the government, he said.
A solution would be housing for all with the employer allowed to charge workers a reasonable rate for the housing, Fazio said.
The bill does not allow employers to charge workers for housing and allowing that and housing for domestic workers is "water under the bridge," said Tom Nassif, president and CEO of Western Growers Association in Irvine, Calif., and a key negotiator for the Agricultural Workforce Coalition.
Employers must provide housing or a housing allowance for at-will workers and can only substitute an allowance for housing for contract workers if they lack housing, Nassif said.
Farmworker advocates wanted housing for all and the AWC worked hard to restrict it just to foreign workers, he said. To go back on that now would be to renege on the deal, he said.
Domestic workers are compensated by getting unemployment insurance, Medicare and Social Security that foreign workers don't get, he said.
Employers save 14 percent of payroll by not having to pay unemployment insurance, medicare and Social Security on foreign workers ,which is quite a savings and makes up for the cost of housing, Nassif said.
"That's all fine," Fazio said, "but domestic workers will push for housing anyway. You know it right now. They don't see unemployment insurance as a benefit."
Anyone can try to amend the bill, but AWC and the United Farm Workers of America are united in working for passage as is, Nassif said.
Chances of passage are better in the Senate than the House, Nassif said.
Fazio said the bill appears unclear as to who pays transportation of guestworkers from and back to the border or country of origin.
Nassif said transportation only has to be paid inbound by the employer first hiring an at-will W-3 worker with no return transportation paid. Inbound and outbound transportation for contract W-2 workers may be paid by one contract employer or more, he said.
The cap or limit of 337,000 guestworkers for five years is a problem depending on the secretary of agriculture's willingness to lift it in case of a proven labor shortage, Fazio said.
A minimum wage of $9.64 per hour for field crop workers and pickers in 2016, going up 1.5 to 2.5 percent a year depending on inflation, should not be an issue in Washington where the minimum wage should be close to $9.75 by then but will be an issue in states with lower minimum wages, Fazio said.
Beside housing, transportation, a minimum wage for guestworkers and legal status for undocumented workers already here, workers do well in the bill by guestworkers obtaining, for the first time, limited private right of action, Fazio said.
The limit is required mediation before litigation but guestworkers could sue for violations of the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act and wage or contract violations, he said. Currently, grievances are handled by the U.S. Department of Labor.