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FLOC decries possible Wage Reduction for Migrant Farmworkers

By La Prensa Staff

The Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) strongly opposes a Trump-initiated and an agricultural-related proposal that could reduce hourly wages for migrant farmworkers to in order to help growers who have lost a lot of their food markets during the coronavirus pandemic.

 

The closure of hotels, restaurants, and bars nationwide are leaving farmers struggling, as a big chunk of the food supply chain is gone.

The Trump administration is considering a reduction in the federal Adverse Effect Wage Rate, which is set annually by the U.S. Dept. of Labor, based on prevailing wages and intended to keep wages of foreign workers high enough that they don’t adversely affect wages and employment of U.S. workers. The AEWR varies from state-to-state—from a low of $11.71 in Florida to a high of $15.83 in Washington state. The average nationwide is $13.99 per hour.

FLOC and other groups fear the AEWR could go as low as the federal minimum wage of $7.25 at a time when farm laborers have been labeled as “essential workers” during the COVID-19 response and must continue working in the fields. The AEWR affects migrant farmworkers who come to the U.S. on a seasonal basis under what’s known as a H-2A guestworker visa.

“This leaves the essential worker status as meaningless, except that they are allowed into the country to fill jobs that are now under more vulnerable conditions, that the millions of now un-employed U.S. workers will not do,” said Baldemar Velásquez, FLOC founder and president.  “This is not acceptable and we will oppose this measure with all our ability to do so.” 

At the same time, federal homeland security officials are working with the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture to try to help stem a labor shortage by speeding up the H-2A visa approval process. The hope there is to draw more migrant farmworkers to help in the fields. But fewer are likely to cross the border for a depressed wage and put themselves at risk for contracting the coronavirus.

The AEWR reduction proposal is under discussion as part of an aid package aimed at helping farmers and growers to economically survive the pandemic. Right now, it's unclear how the reforms would be made, including whether through executive action or through the federal regulatory process.

The Trump administration on April 17 announced a $19 billion bail-out, relief program to help U.S. farmers cope with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, including $16 billion in direct payments to farmers and ranchers and $3 billion worth of mass purchases of produce, meat and other products to be sent directly to food banks. 

“American agriculture has been hard-hit, like most of America, with the coronavirus, and President Trump is standing with our farmers and all Americans to make sure that we all get through this national emergency,” U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said. 

Some federal officials are calling the food supply chain a matter of national security and worry about farm failures amid the labor shortages in agriculture, disruptions in the food supply chain with the closure of several processing plants due to health concerns, and the loss of certain segments of the market, such as restaurants and hotels.

“Having to dump milk or plow under vegetables ready to market is not only financially distressing but it's heartbreaking as well for those that produce them,” Perdue said. 

But the wage reduction proposal was left out of the recently announced aid package, because it has drawn immediate fire from a number of segments.

Erik Nicholson, national vice president for the United Farm Workers, stated vulnerable guestworkers are not being provided proper hand-washing facilities and still being forced to live in cramped housing.

“So, in the middle of a pandemic, rather than trying to figure out the cheap way to do things, we need to make sure we live up to the expectations society has of us as an industry to keep the food flowing,” Nicholson told NPR.

Other groups fear the Trump administration is bending to the will of the agriculture lobby that is demanding lower wages for foreign and domestic farmworkers at a time of record high unemployment in the United States. There is real fear that such a move, in turn, could further depress wages for U.S. workers, too.

But working in the fields has never been an attractive option to the U.S. workforce, even as recently as the recession just over a decade ago. So migrant farmworkers, in the form of H-2A guest workers, will remain the norm for some time to come.

FLOC sees room for a bigger discussion, to include minimum price structures on the food supply, so smaller farmers and growers who supply multinational corporations have more certainty when calamity does strike—such as a pandemic, drought, or severe storms.

“We believe that in order to both guarantee good fair working conditions and job security, agricultural employers need to receive fair treatment from both government policy and multi-national procurement systems to avoid a win-lose political battle that whipsaws back and forth depending on which politician controls the White House,” said Velásquez. “Any discussion of changes in the AEWR must include this aspect as a more far-reaching solution.”


From: Baldemar Velasquez, President of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, AFL-CIO

RE: H2A Wage Rates

The Administration proposal to discuss cutting the Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR) would set a precedent in creating a regressive double standard for agricultural workers. While the nation is negotiating such things as premium pay for "essential workers" along with sick pay, payroll protections, etc., farm workers are left out of consideration. This leaves the essential worker status as meaningless, except that they are allowed into the country to fill jobs that are now under more vulnerable conditions, that the millions of now un-employed US workers will not do. This is not acceptable and we will oppose this measure with all our ability to do so! We insist that agricultural workers be considered equal to other "essential workers" and that direct attention be paid to the protections and supporting benefits being given to others.

In 2019, we were coming off the heels of numerous severe storms that damaged the tobacco, vegetable, and fruit crops, when a trade war was initiated by the Trump administration that gutted agriculture and global tobacco demand. This gave global tobacco leaf purchasers such as Alliance One and Universal Leaf a perfect opportunity to slash tobacco prices. This squeezed growers to match the low cost of tobacco from other countries with no labor protections. In this corporate drive for higher profits, family farms in the South were squeezed from both ends, leading to losing about three hundred union jobs in North Carolina and intense fights over lowered hours and employer requirements. We remain concerned that, if this trend continues, this downward spiral will accelerate in 2020 and beyond and risk thousands of agricultural jobs in North Carolina many of which are union jobs. It is important to remember that desired wage increases must be matched with a countering force to make sure that growers of tobacco, sweet potato, and other commodities receive increase prices from their buyers.

Few conversations among trade unions and worker advocacy organizations have considered regional differences from nearly year-round huge enterprises with thousands of employees that dominate the West Coast and the small family farmers that employ less than fifty workers during peak season which close for months each year in the off-season in the Midwest and South. This is an important distinction and we would welcome discussion of how public policy can recognize this.

For this reason, our union has taken the position that the first priority of worker advocacy has to be to push for more organizing and real freedom of association in agriculture throughout the country. This would ensure that workers on the front lines have a vehicle and a collective/unified voice to make sure that any legislative effort actually reaps benefits for workers, not just standards that are randomly if at all enforced. Secondly, we believe that through worker/public pressure or through legislation, there must be some reigning in of agricultural purchasers, to include them in the economic analysis, impacting and compelling them to be part of solutions to worker exploitation on the wage front. If we know that a minimum wage in agriculture is crucial to support workers, there needs to be a parallel effort for minimum price structures and procurement policies among global corporations, such as manufacturers, grocery chains, giant retailers, restaurant chains, food production, and

tobacco manufacturers. If farm workers deserve a sustainable wage, then small farmers with labor intensive crops that are suppliers to large companies deserve a sustainable price.

For decades, our union has sought to bring purchasers of agricultural commodities to the table, understanding that agricultural growers who are suppliers have exactly zero influence over the pricing of their commodities and hence the profit margins available to split with workers through pay and benefits. While we often have serious differences on day-to-day operations, we believe that in order to both guarantee good fair working conditions and job security, agricultural employers need to receive fair treatment from both government policy and multi-national procurement systems to avoid a win-lose political battle that whipsaws back and forth depending on which politician controls the White House. Any discussion of changes in the AEWR must include this aspect as a more far-reaching solution

It is for these reasons that we encourage a global view of agriculture and an advocacy that takes into account the different realities throughout geographical regions and seeks to find compromise through leveraging everything we can, including direct support to growers during a trying time.

We can’t go back to the old double standards of the 50’s when there was a different minimum wage for farm workers and the rest of the nation and as a fallback, the old Bracero Program. At this moment, when few workers have an ability to protect their union jobs, conditions and wages, the rest are left to the mercy of those in power to dictate their fate. We must find a way to engage the wealthy corporations that control our food supply. We have to stop asking for just the scraps of food from global food systems while they continue to reap all the benefits of farmworkers’ blood sweat and tears that we leave on the soil.

Sincerely,

Baldemar Velasquez, President

 

 

 
Copyright © 1989 to 2020 by [LaPrensa Publications Inc.]. All rights reserved.
Revised: 04/21/20 21:03:27 -0700.

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