From Yakima-Herald.com, David Lester, 18 Feb 2012.
ELLENSBURG — More Washington farmers are expected to turn to a federal foreign guest worker program out of concern that last fall’s labor shortage will only get worse in 2012, employer advocates say.
And Washington’s agriculture director said he believes solving agriculture’s labor needs through comprehensive immigration reform may require a nationwide groundswell similar to the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
“It will take that much effort to solve this,” Agriculture Director Dan Newhouse, a Sunnyside farmer and former state representative, told a farm labor conference here last week.
That reform, farm interests argue, must include some form of a guest worker program that allows nonresidents to enter the country legally for agricultural work.
No substantial immigration reform effort, however, is likely in this election year or early in 2013, observers say.
“Opinions differ on this issue,” Newhouse continued. “It is a huge challenge to make people understand what we need to survive. We all want the same things, secure borders and an end to the illegal traffic in guns and drugs.”
Only through political will by the president and congressional leaders and an improved economy is a breakthrough on overall reform possible, said Chris Schlect, president of the Northwest Horticultural Council of Yakima, which represents the Northwest tree fruit industry on trade and regulatory issues.
Schlect, who did not attend Thursday’s conference, serves on the National Council of Agricultural Employers, which is working on the immigration issue.
“It is extremely difficult to get an immigration bill through Congress when unemployment is as high as it is,” Schlect observed. “The fear of unemployment lessens when the economy is strong and it is easier to deal with an issue like this.”
Prospects might also improve if the public believes the United States has succeeded in securing its borders.
“Once that is done, a lot of members of Congress would be willing to look at a more comprehensive approach,” Schlect said.
Another of the many hot-button issues in immigration is what to do with the undocumented workers already in the country. Opponents harken back to the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 that granted amnesty. Conservatives don’t want to see that repeated.
But Schlect said it is hard to see how any comprehensive solution could go forward without fairly dealing with the millions of people already here.
Farmworkers union: What shortage?
A hint of the wide difference of opinion over reform was on display outside the luncheon venue where Newhouse spoke to the eighth annual conference of the Washington Farm Labor Association at Central Washington University.
The United Farm Workers Union conducted a rally several yards away inside the university’s student union building.
The group of about 25 were criticizing a scheduled appearance at the conference by Dick Bengen, a Pasco-area dairy producer. Bengen is in a long-running labor dispute with the union over organizing the work force at Ruby Ridge dairy.
Union Regional Director Jorge Antonio Valenzuela said agriculture’s argument that there is a worker shortage is false.
“If the industry would improve working conditions and pay decent wages, there is no reason why people wouldn’t work,” Valenzuela said. “They wouldn’t be moving to other jobs.”
But Newhouse said unless an immigration solution is found, Washington farmers, particularly apple growers, could see further labor shortages and additional losses from unharvested fruit he estimated at $40 million last fall.
“Indications I see are that is a number that could only grow in the near future,” said Newhouse.
Dan Fazio, farm labor association director, estimated the apple harvest labor shortage at 5 percent, or about 5,000 workers.
In response, more growers are likely to turn to the federal program, known as H-2A, for workers.
About 3,000 workers entered the state last year under the program, which requires employers to show they can’t recruit workers locally and pay transportation and housing for workers.
The number of H-2A workers could grow to as many as 4,000 in 2012.
Fazio said 20 employers around the state used the program last year and 25 are expected to participate this year.
The farm labor association, which started as a Washington State Farm Bureau program in 2007, split off as an independent group last year.
Without some kind of guest worker program, Fazio said H-2A and use of farm labor contractors to procure workers are the best current alternatives for growers.
Other possible sources of employees — prison inmates, seekers of asylum from religious or political persecution and youth workers — aren’t likely to meet the need, Fazio said.
State prison inmates were used to harvest apples in a Northcentral Washington orchard last fall. The grower paid the state $22 per hour for inmates.
The state charge covers the costs for food, transportation, the camp where inmates stayed and the $8.67 per hour that each prisoner received.
With limited options, agriculture is pursuing the guest worker approach as a plank in a comprehensive reform package.
Such a package would provide growers an alternative to H-2A — seen as cumbersome and burdened by regulatory requirements — and allow guest workers to legally enter the country for a period of years, similar to the immigration provision that allows immigrants with special skills to work in the United States.
Fazio argued agriculture lacks an adequate workforce because of increased border security, movement of former ag workers into other industries, and the aging of the existing migrant population.
Newhouse said other countries have devised guest worker programs that are working better than the U.S. system, where an entire industry relies on illegal labor.
“This is an issue that will determine if we will be able to survive as a country,” Newhouse said.
* David Lester can be reached at 509-577-7674 or firstname.lastname@example.org.