Back to Indentured Servitude; A Cynical Change in America's Promise to Temporary Workers

Article excerpt


The Obama administration's immigration proposals are both bad policy and cynical politics - harming our economy and our workers while turning foreign workers into indentured servants.

The Labor Department revised out-of-date rules - some dating back to the Johnson era - for temporary foreign agricultural workers, called H-2A visas, in December 2008. The old rules were cumbersome and costly, thereby actually encouraging farmers to hire illegal immigrants. The results? An estimated 600,000 to 800,000 foreign agricultural workers were employed here, but only about 75,000 H-2A visas were issued in 2007. The rest are presumably here illegally and therefore susceptible to subminimum wages and dangerous, unsanitary living and working conditions. Aside from the affront to our values, such conditions can drive down wages and impair working conditions for American citizens - to say nothing of the unpaid taxes from the illegal employment.

So, the Labor Department went through the legally required process to reform the rules. The goal: Farmers can hire temporary workers when no U.S. workers are available and when the foreign workers are appropriately protected. The new rule established enhanced penalties for violations and new tools to ensure compliance, including audits and substantial fines - up to $100,000 for serious injury or death of a worker. The prior rule had a maximum fine of $1,000 - essentially a large speeding ticket for potentially killing someone. Then-Rep. Hilda L. Solis, California Democrat, along with the Food and Commercial Workers Union and a public interest group known as Farmworker Justice, opposed these regulations on various grounds - arguing instead for legislation called AgJobs. Farmworker Justice, in fact, sued and lost an emergency attempt to stop the Labor Department's H-2A reforms in federal court in January.

AgJobs is cynical and arguably anti-American. It legalizes illegal workers after a small fine of a few hundred dollars. Anyone who worked five months in agriculture in the prior two years is eligible for legalization, including those facing judicial deportation orders. That would mean 600,000 to 800,000 new permanent U.S. residents plus their families - many of whom probably have a limited education, speak little English and may not even be immunized against communicable diseases. AgJobs also makes these workers less well-off financially by arbitrarily slashing their wages across the board.

The December 2008 reforms set minimum wages according to local market rates so the temporary workers can take care of their families while in the United States and return to their home countries with a nest egg. …