Farm worker programs debated as U.S. economy sours

YAKIMA, Wash. (AP) — John Wyss had just been hired at one of the nation’s largest apple growers in 2005 when the company couldn’t find enough workers. Fruit went unpicked, and much of what was picked came off the trees too late.

Hail and harsh winter freezes have shrunk the crops in the years since, reducing the need for workers. But if the weather had cooperated, he said, "We would have had severe labor problems."

It’s become an annual argument — farmers nationally complain about a shortage of workers, while labor groups counter that higher wages will secure field hands.

This year, new rules enacted by the Bush administration shortly before leaving office may make it easier for farmers to bring in foreign workers. Plus, Congress faces another push to potentially legalize undocumented farm workers already in the country. At the same time, thousands of U.S. workers are losing their jobs in the economic crisis.

How problematic does that make any talk of bringing in foreign workers?


Wyss, of Gebbers Farms, recognizes that any legislation dealing with foreign workers is going to be a challenge in tough economic times, no matter what’s being proposed. But he also believes the farm labor market is going to be as tight as its ever been.

"There has always been a migratory labor force in some industry in this country, and during all those years, there were economic challenges," he said. "I don’t think that’s going to change."

As many as 1 million people labor in America’s farm fields each year, pruning trees and harvesting fruits and vegetables. The Labor Department has estimated more than half are in the country illegally.

Federal efforts to crack down on illegal immigration in recent years have left many growers fearing fines for employing undocumented workers, and more are showing interest in a federal guestworker program long criticized as cumbersome and expensive.

Farmers brought in nearly 77,000 foreign farm workers in 2007, the most recent year for which numbers are available. In Washington state, the number of workers brought into the country nearly doubled in 2008 to 2,094, up from 1,140 a year earlier. That’s far fewer than the thousands working in Washington fields each year.

The Washington Farm Bureau has proposed that the state push Congress for a new, nonimmigrant visa class for "essential workers." Under the bill in the Legislature, the state would then create its own essential worker program to bring in foreign workers during times of peak need.

Colorado last year approved its own pilot program, which goes into effect this year.

"Even with the economic downturn, I don’t see people long-term getting into the migrant farm worker trade. That sounds brutal, but I just don’t see it," said Dan Fazio, director of employer services for the Washington Farm Bureau. "This work force is going to have to come from somewhere else."


But Erik Nicholson of the United Farmworkers of America calls the bill "political theater." He said, "It’s an extremely poorly crafted bill that runs counter to existing immigration law in a number of ways."

Labor groups support a separate bill that would more strictly regulate contractors that bring foreign workers into the country. They also have filed suit against recent changes to the federal guestworker program, saying they will lower wages in the fields, erode labor protections and make it easier for contractors to avoid hiring legal U.S. workers.

"Domestic workers are going to be looking over their shoulders," Nicholson said. "They are fully aware that if they start asserting their rights — for handwashing facilities, bathrooms facilities or heaven forbid, union representation — they can be more easily replaced by foreign workers."

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Farm worker programs debated as US economy sours

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