NEws/US: U.S. lawmakers plan migrant farm worker law reform

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Subject: NEws/US: U.S. lawmakers plan migrant farm worker law reform
From: Melanie Orhant (morhant@igc.org)
Date: Mon Oct 11 1999 - 09:22:16 EDT


U.S. lawmakers plan migrant farm worker law reform
By Barbara Hagenbaugh

WASHINGTON, Oct 1 (Reuters) - U.S. lawmakers plan another attempt to reform
the program that regulates the employment of foreign farm workers, saying
growers are desperate to clear away legal obstacles to finding hired hands
in a tight labor market.

Although their efforts were defeated last year, U.S. senators and farm
groups are hopeful they will be able to pass legislation this year to make
the so-called H-2A program more farmer-friendly.

The program allows farmers to bring in foreign workers for up to ten months
with U.S. government approval.

The nation's farm work force is being depleted by a low unemployment rate,
a crackdown on illegal immigrants by the Immigration and Naturalization
Service and the high-tech efforts of the Social Security Administration to
chase down illegal workers, said advocates for altering the program.

"A lot of farmers are having a really tough time finding an adequate labor
force," said American Farm Bureau lobbyist Bryan Little. "There just aren't
enough people to go around."

Farmers say the H-2A program imposes too many restrictions. The manual for
farmers participating in the program is a daunting 325 pages.

The program requires farmers to start filling out forms well ahead of the
harvest season, before they know how big their crops will be or how many
workers they will need. They must also have on-farm housing available and
pay a minimum wage some say is set unfairly.

"I don't think there is any doubt that the program is flawed," said Chris
Hand, a spokesman for Sen. Bob Graham, a Florida Democrat.

Graham and a group of Democratic and Republican senators are working with
the five-million-member American Farm Bureau on legislation that would
remove some of the regulatory hurdles that deter farmers from using the
program.

The group is considering many changes, including reforming the minimum wage
provision.

Currently, a single wage can apply across several states and is based on
the going wage for all kinds of agricultural workers, including those on
the high end of the pay scale, such as livestock inseminators.

The senators also want to drop the requirement for on-site housing, and
allow growers to instead subsidize housing elsewhere.

The bill is expected to be drafted in the next two weeks.

Last year, reforms to the H-2A program passed the Senate but were dropped
in the House, where lawmakers chose to pursue a separate immigration reform
proposal instead. A companion bill will likely be crafted by House members
this year, Senate staffers said.

The Senate bill is being drafted in consultation with the White House to
make sure it will be signed by President Bill Clinton. "We've been talking
to them about it pretty much from the beginning," Little said. "By this
time last year, we had a veto threat dropped on us and we haven't gotten
one yet."

It is estimated that at least half of the nation's more than one million
farm workers are illegal aliens.

Opponents of changing the H-2A law say making it easier for farm workers to
enter the United States will only lead to a flood of immigrants who will
stay in the country illegally after their time is up.

Melanie Orhant
morhant@igc.org
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