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Bush to change farmworker hiring rules

By SUZANNE GAMBOA, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON, Dec. 10, 2008 (AP): As it prepares to leave office, the George W. Bush administration is moving to make it easier for U.S. farming companies to hire foreign fieldworkers, which farmworker groups say will worsen wages and working conditions.

Farm groups said changes to the H2A visa program, used by the agriculture industry to hire temporary farmworkers, were posted on the Labor Department's Web site at midnight Tuesday but have since been taken down.

Labor Department spokesman Terry Shawn said whatever was posted was not the final version of the new rule, which Shawn said would be released Thursday and published in the Federal Register on Dec. 18, 2008.

Baldemar Velásquez

The Bush administration published a proposed version of the new rule Feb. 13, 2008, and received nearly 12,000 public comments, Shawn said. The next version will be a final rule and can take effect 30 days after publication. Some of its provisions would take effect in mid-January and others later in 2009, the farmworker groups said.

Farmworker advocates and the United Farm Workers union said the version that appeared on the Web site would lead to a flood of cheaper workers.

Baldemar Velásquez, president of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) based in Toledo, agrees. “We are highly impacted by the rewritten standards submitted by the Bush Department of Labor. It is a going away Christmas present to the Agricultural Industry and a Scrooge-like signal to America’s farm workers. I hope Bush remembers the hands that put the next mouth full of food in his hands.”   

“H2A workers will see a drop of over $2.00 per hour in his regulatory changes and guts few protections in the current language. It is an arrogant measure, discarding the lives of the most vulnerable and weakest members of our society.  

“By my estimation, Bush will go down in history as the worse president in our country’s history—for his lack of intellect, his lack of vision other than enriching his cronies through war and mayhem, and his callous attitude towards the working poor,” surmised Velásquez.

The changes in the posted version would drop a requirement that an employer get the Labor Department to certify it faces a worker shortage before it can get visas for foreign workers; instead, employers would be allowed simply to attest in writing to a shortage.

That version of the new rule also would change the method for calculating wage minimums for workers and relieve employers of a requirement to recruit in states or communities where other employers already are hiring farm workers, said Bruce Goldstein, executive director of Farmworker Justice, a group that advocates for farmworkers.

“The government has decided to offer agriculture employers really low wages, low benefits, no government oversight to bring in foreign workers on restricted visas and thereby convince them they should do this instead of hiring undocumented workers,” concluded Goldstein.

Leon Sequeira, a Labor Department assistant secretary, said late Wednesday the agency is not dropping requirements on certification, which is required by law.

Paul Schlegel, American Farm Bureau public policy director, said many of the changes will make the program a little less burdensome for employers. He said existing laws prevent employers from hiring foreign workers if the jobs can be filled by U.S. workers.

``My members want to make sure they have a legal supply of labor,'' said Schlegel, who added that he had not reviewed all the proposed changes.

The rule changes are a part of a pattern of last-minute regulatory changes being rushed into effect by the Bush administration before President-elect Barack Hussein Obama’s Jan. 20, 2009 inauguration.

The effect is to make it harder for Democrat Obama to change course on some policies favored by Republicans and the business community.

``We are hopeful that the Obama administration would recognize the utter mistake and unfairness of this proposal,'' Goldstein said. Congress has a procedure for reversing the rules, he said.

Many of the last-minute changes by the Bush administration have come in the area of public lands and the environment, including easing regulations on mining waste and allowing handguns in national parks. Another pending rule would grant greater leeway to railroads to transport hazardous materials through densely populated areas.

Rico de La Prensa contributed to this report. On the Net: Department of Labor: www.dol.gov
The Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), www.floc.com
Farmworker Justice: www.fwjustice.org
American Farm Bureau: www.fb.org





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