AgJOBS, Guest Worker Program, H-2A, Immigration, Labor, Legislation, UFW

Where Have the Farmworkers Gone?

From PoliticsOfPoverty.OxfamAmerica.org, by Irit Tamir, senior advocacy and collaborations advisor, 24 Oct 2011.

The reason farmers can’t go out and hire unemployed local workers is because the work is just too hard for the amount of money that is being paid.

A couple of weeks ago, I found myself in acre of kale plants on my hands and knees. I was working my volunteer hours for my local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) share. A CSA is a popular way to get local and seasonal food from a farm near you. You give the farmer money up front and in return you get a box of vegetables once a week for the season. Here in New England, my share with Lands Sake begins in June and ends in October. The farmer gets money up front to invest in the farm and help with their cash flow. The consumer receives fresh, local food and knows where and how the food is grown.

I only weeded the field for an hour and half, but it was enough. I am in decent shape and garden at home all the time, but farmwork is different. It is repetitive and puts you in awkward positions for long periods of time. So, even in this tough economic environment, it is no wonder that not many Americans are flocking to these jobs.

Three weeks ago, the New York Times published a piece about the labor shortage in agriculture. You might wonder why there is a labor shortage with so many unemployed. The reason farmers can’t go out and hire unemployed local workers is because the work is just too hard for the amount of money that is being paid. An article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution cites a new report that shows Georgia’s economy is likely to lose $391 million and lose 3,260 jobs because of farm labor shortages. While the report doesn’t discuss the cause for the shortage, farmers blame Georgia’s new immigration law.

The reality is that many farmers rely on undocumented workers for their labor. With states passing laws that essentially hunt down undocumented immigrants, farmers are losing their cheap labor.

That’s why Congress needs to pass AgJobs, a bipartisan bill that was negotiated by the United Farm Workers and agriculture employers as part of a comprehensive immigration reform bill. Both growers and farmworker unions support AgJobs, so why hasn’t it gotten done?

Immigration reform is a hot button issue that neither Republicans nor Democrats want to touch. As the Republican presidential debates have shown, anyone supporting anything that benefits migrants is demonized. Instead, growers are now proposing reforms to the H-2A guest worker program which would strip the few protections in place for farmworkers.

If we want to continue enjoying fresh produce from American farms, then we need a stable labor force that is protected and receives livable wages for work that most of us refuse to do.

Source: PoliticsOfPoverty.OxfamAmerica.org, “Where have the farmworkers gone?” by Irit Tamir, senior advocacy and collaborations advisor, 24 Oct 2011.

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