For the first time in years, the nation's 1 million or so farmworkers will get a real measure of fairness in how they are hired, paid and treated on the job.
Last week, U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis outlined new rules for the temporary immigrant farmworkers program known as H-2A for the type of visa that foreign workers are issued. Solis said these changes would boost wages and tighten protections for American and foreign laborers.
With these changes, growers will be required to prove they first tried to find American workers to fill jobs that routinely are given to migrants. In the past, they could claim they looked for American workers. They now must prove they conducted legitimate job searches. To this end, the Labor Department will establish a national electronic registry of farm jobs.
Growers nationwide are fuming over the new rules, calling them cumbersome and costly. Migrant advocates are mostly pleased, saying the rules will, at the very least, prevent many egregious abuses.
One cautious supporter of the rules is Greg Asbed of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.
"Our position is that the changes are good, but not sufficient," he wrote in an e-mail response. "The central, defining problem with the H-2A visa is that it is not portable, i.e., it is employer specific, and workers cannot change employers. As such, it puts workers in a decidedly weak position in relation to their employers, who can send them home and, as it often happens, blacklist them if they don't conform to whatever conditions they encounter."
Many of the new regulations restore procedures that were revised or tossed out during the final days of George W. Bush's presidency.
Bush's most devastating change was the method of calculating wages for H-2A workers. Farmworker organizations objected at the time, arguing that the change would drastically lower wages. They were right, according to a New York Times analysis. During the year the Bush calculation was in place, farmworkers' wages were reduced by an average of a dollar an hour. The new calculation, which restores wages to their previous levels, takes effect March 15.
Solis said the new rules also would return power to state work force agencies to inspect farms that request migrants. The agencies also regained the authority to inspect the housing that growers are required to provide.
Another major change is that growers will have to deliver contracts to migrant guest laborers before they leave their native countries. This requirement will help protect workers from recruiting abuses.
The coalition's Asbed cautions: "It is our hope that, if we are to continue having a guest-worker visa, that it be industry, not employer, specific, at the very least. If an industry can demonstrate that it is experiencing a shortage of domestic workers, then it can as an industry apply for X number of guest-worker visas, which workers can use to work for any qualifying employer in the industry. That alone would help redress the untenable imbalance of power between workers and employers in the current formulation of the guest-worker visa."
In Florida last week, tomato pickers received positive news of their own. The powerful Florida Tomato Growers Exchange announced it will let its members distribute to workers extra wages contributed by grocers such as Whole Foods and fast-food companies such as McDonald's, Burger King and Subway.
This is a major reversal for the FTGE. For more than three years, it vigorously fought the Coalition of Immokalee Workers' Campaign for Fair Food. The campaign's goal is to raise pickers' annual earnings from about $10,000 to between $16,000 and $17,000 with a penny per-pound increase.
Reggie Brown, FTGE's executive vice president, testified against the campaign at congressional hearings, arguing that a third party had no legal authority to mandate the terms of its labor practices. The organization, which represents 90 percent of the growers in the state's $400 million industry, threatened to fine growers $100,000 if they paid the extra penny. FTGE dropped the policy last year and has since devised its own payment plan, along with a "social accountability" code.
"This is an opportunity to partner with our customers and meet their social accountability needs," Brown told the Miami Herald on behalf of the growers. Under the FTGE's plan, in addition to releasing the penny-per-pound funds that have been held in escrow, a growers' code would prohibit violence or threats, ban discrimination and accept third-party audits.
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers argues that the FTGE is moving in the right direction but has not gone far enough: It did not seek input from workers or their representatives.
"In the end, the growers' code leaves the foxes squarely in charge of the henhouse," coalition member Lucas Benitez said. "And sadly, Florida tomato growers have never demonstrated the ability to police themselves."
While the Labor Department's new guest-worker rules and the FTGE's reversal will improve the lives of farmworkers, more needs to be done at federal and state levels to give these long-neglected people the same rights and protections the rest of us take for granted.