Farm Workforce Modernization Act poses setbacks for workers and growers / Noisy Waters Northwest

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Community members, along with representatives of Community to Community Development and Familias Unidas por la Justicia join in a 2019 People’s Tribunal addressing the mistreatment of H-2A farmworkers at Crystal View Raspberry Farm in Bellingham, WA

November 30, 2019  Dena Jensen

Local farmworker advocacy organizations, Community to Community Development,  and Familias Unidas por la Justicia have been of significant support to H-2A visa workers, locally in Whatcom County, and in other areas in the state, as they were in June of 2019 in Grant County, Washington, at the King Fuji Ranch in Mattewa.

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Screenshot of a June 13, 2019 Familias Unidas por la Justicia Facebook post showing a worker in Mattawa, WA holding up a sign that says “HUELGA,” meaning “strike.” Other workers are around him. Graphic text on the photo reads “Support H2A Workers on Strike at King Fuji in Mattawa” and “Apoyen A Trabajadores H2A en Huelga en el Rancho King Fuji”

The organizations have issued statements in opposition to the 2019 United States House of Representatives bill, HR 5038, known as the Farm Workforce Modernization Act.

Whenever the eco-feminist, women-led Community to Community, or Familias Unidas — which is one of only four farmworker unions in existence the United States — have received a call from H-2A workers in Washington State who are registering mistreatment or abuse by their employers, they have answered that call.

The H-2A visa program allows male workers to be brought in from outside of the United States for a limited amount of time in order that they can be used for performing work at a U.S. agricultural operations, to which they are bound by contract.

Formed in 2013, “with the hopes of securing a better future for hand harvesters in the local berry fields of Whatcom and Skagit County,” Familias Unidas listens to the guest workers complaints, assessing the unfair practices to which workers have been subjected, and confirms that they have a right to safe living and working conditions at the farms where they are working. Established union members stand by the workers who are willing to organize as they seek to negotiate with the owners and management of farms to which they are contracted.

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Click the graphic to access a June 13, 2019 Familias Unidas por la Justicia video with Edgar Franks offering an update on a picket regarding attempted negotiations between farmworkers and King Fuji Ranch owners

 

HR 5038 was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives on November 12, 2019, and the House’s Committee on the Judiciary held a mark-up session a little over a week later, on November 20. The bill was discussed, and a number of amendments were proposed, only one of which was adopted. The legislation was passed out of committee and according to California Citrus Mutual, now awaits consideration on the floor of the House of Representatives.

This is a bill that supporters promote as being the product of 9 months of arduous negotiations, and which received input from “agricultural stakeholders and labor organizations.” However, according to Civil Eats, the four farmworker unions in the United States cover “just a tiny fraction of the more than 1 million hired farmworkers who toil on American farms and dairies.”  Only one of those farmworker unions, United Farm Workers, is listed as supporting HR 5038.

Meanwhile, three hundred grower proponent organizations signed onto a letter on November 18, 2019 to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy in support of the legislation.

Despite formidable support from agricultural interests, during the November 20, meeting of the House Committee of the Judiciary, Congressman Doug Collins from Georgia, who advocated for growers and poultry operations in his state, still found much to criticize. He emphasized that the bill had not been endorsed by the American Farm Bureau.

Familias Unidas and other Washington State farmworkers and their advocates were not consulted during the negotiations on the bill. President, Ramon Torres said in the union’s statement opposing HR 5038:

The H2A program breaks up families in order to make record profits for the growers. We see the H2A program as a continuation of the family separation that is happening at the border and detention centers. The H2A system is deeply flawed and any expansion is hurtful for farmworkers.”

Such family separation had especially tragic consequences in the summer of 2017, when, workers at Sarbanand Farms in Whatcom County were being subjected to conditions that earned the company fines placed by the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries for significant violations of Agricultural Employment Standards. One of Sarbanand Farms H-2A workers, Honesto Silva Ibarra, died during the timing those violations were taking place and did not make it home alive to his family in Ojocali, Mexico.

One of the requirements included in the 2019 Farm Workforce Modernization Act is one for mandatory electronic verification of identity and employment authorization that “shall apply to a person or entity hiring, recruiting, or referring for a fee an individual for agricultural employment in the United States.”

The electronic verification system will be patterned on the E-Verify Program which has been identified as having numerous flaws by labor organizations such as the AFL-CIO.  The idea with HR 5038, is to require all agricultural employers covered by the bill to obtain specific types of documentation for each worker’s identity.

June 26, 2019 press release about Pennsylvania House Bill 1170, which had passed the Pennsylvania State House at that time, was seen by the United Steel workers as one that “would penalize companies that fail to subject employees to the E-Verify system, which both workers and employees have condemned as costly and riddled with errors.” Two Pittsburg organizations affiliated with the AFL-CIO had joined USW in opposing the bill.

The press release had asserted:

“Requiring construction companies to use the system could also open them to legal risk if system blunders prompted them to wrongly fire workers. In addition, E-Verify creates privacy and security risks as the federal government compiles and maintains sensitive information on all workers.”

A November 2019 article in the Tampa Bay Times raised the point that for a law requiring E-verify to matter, “the state would have to punish businesses that consistently hire undocumented workers.” The article went on to say that, “Georgia hadn’t bothered to fund the department tasked with auditing whether companies were complying with the E-Verify law, Bloomberg found. In Mississippi and Alabama, no one seemed to know which department enforced the law.”

According to an August 28, 2019 Crosscut article the use of H-2A workers in Washington State “has increased by a factor of 10 since 2007.”  Despite this, the program has only been used by two Whatcom County farms over the last three years. In both cases, at Sarbanand Farms in Sumas in 2017, and at Crystal View Raspberry Farm in 2018, exploitation and mistreatment of workers was reported. Workers came together, due to their access to farmworker and labor advocacy organizations like Familias Unidas and Community to Community, to strike and have their grievances known, be supported, and confronted by their employers.

In communities without access to advocacy, such mistreatment of guest workers happens with little hope of them being daylighted. And with farmworkers being excluded from the Fair Labor Standards Act, they are not guaranteed a right to collective bargaining. HR 5038 does nothing to remedy this situation that is made extremely dangerous in the specific case of H-2A workers who are not familiar, in most cases, with the language, country, and customs they are entering into.

In Community to Community Development’s statement in opposition to the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, they conclude:

“This bill is clearly designed to benefit large growers and corporate agricultural interests, such as farm labor contractors. Any just immigration reform would determine eligibility for status based on human or labor rights, not the profitability of immigrant labor for corporations. 

“We believe that this bill will create additional barriers to domestic farmworkers’ ability to create economic well-being and social equity for themselves and their families in rural America. We urge you to contact your legislators and ask them to oppose this bill.”