I had the chance to chat on Jan. 4 with Bruce Goldstein, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Farmworker Justice.

12:31 p.m.  Tom Karst: Thanks for taking time for this chat. I saw that Farmworker Justice had some comments on the Georgia Ag Labor report. What was the gist of your thoughts on that report?

12:32 p.m.  Bruce Goldstein: The Georgia Ag Commissioner’s report did not seek out the opinions of agricultural workers, who were the subject of the report, and that concerns us.

12:34 p.m.  Karst: Growers are very frustrated that they cannot find enough legal workers, whether because of new state laws or the large falsely documented immigrant work force. In your view, how can American growers find enough legal workers to harvest their crops?

12:38 p.m.  Goldstein: There are several solutions. First, the report and other studies show that farmworkers’ wages are very low, and few receive any fringe benefits such as paid sick leave or health insurance. So the first solution is to improve wages and working conditions to attract and retain workers. The second solution in the near term is to use the H-2A temporary foreign worker program; the report says that 90% of the surveyed businesses had not used it (though some are not eligible for it). Despite many employer complaints about it, the wages and other terms are based on the old Bracero program which was seen as very abusive toward workers; the growers’ complaints are overblown. Third, we need immigration reform that allows undocumented farmworkers to earn legal immigration status and to do that we need to rebuild the labor-management coalition that developed to persuade Congress.
On the legislative front, the harsh state laws regarding immigration also need to be stopped, as immigration -- as this report notes--- is a federal issue, and state actions are deterring some migrant farmworkers from traveling to some states for work.

12:41 p.m.  Karst: On the issue of wages, growers have said that it is difficult to attract and retain U.S. workers because of the demanding nature of the work. Isn’t there more than a grain of truth to the notion that Americans simply aren’t interested in harvesting lettuce or picking oranges?

12:46 p.m.  Goldstein: There are many hard, dirty, dangerous and seasonal jobs in this country, and in most occupations, the employers recruit and retain workers for those jobs by offering the economically necessary wage rates according to the law of supply and demand. Agriculture should be no different. The Georgia report quotes many employers condemning the work ethic of Americans and praising the willingness of foreign workers to accept any job terms. We believe that most Americans -- whether immigrants or citizens -- have a great work ethic. They need to be compensated fairly so they can afford the cost of living in the U.S., not the cost of living in a developing country with no jobs. A “grain of truth” is too small a justification for serious policy issues.

12:49 p.m.  Karst: Farmworker Justice has been critical of the H-2A program in your report, “No way to treat a guest” Shouldn’t growers who use the H-2A program to find a legal work force be championed instead of vilified? Would your group support making the H-2A program easier to use and capable of providing more workers for U.S. growers?

12:54 p.m.  Goldstein: Our report, “No Way to Treat a Guest” examines the operation of the H-2A program. It does not vilify H-2A program users. It does conclude that U.S. workers who want farm jobs are being discriminated against in favor of foreign H-2A workers, and that many H-2A guest workers are not receiving what the law requires. The report makes recommendations to address those issues. It also recommends major immigration reform so that the current, highly productive farmworkers who lack authorized immigration status are given the opportunity to obtain legal immigration status for themselves and their families. We believe that some of the H-2A program’s job terms are too weak -- including the wages being too low, partly because they are based wage surveys that include what undocumented workers are paid. In the past, Farmworker Justice has publicly supported and still does support a legislative compromise that would address many growers’ concerns about the H-2A program while also providing a path to earn legal immigration status.

12:59 p.m.  Karst: Bruce, thanks for your time. One more question. Taking a broader view, you mentioned immigration reform. I know that your group has supported AgJobs in the past. Given the current political climate, what is your view about the opportunity for comprehensive immigration reform this year? Is there any way for the ag community and groups like Farmworker Justice to work on a solution together?

1:02 p.m.  Goldstein: Yes, there continues to be a willingness on the part of Farmworker Justice and other farm worker advocacy organizations to work with agricultural employers on a solution. I think some agricultural employers have taken a defeatist attitude because so many Republican members of Congress have been unwilling to address immigration issues in a meaningful and reasonable way. But we have to keep working on it, and Congressional action won’t happen without our joint efforts to solve these problems. I don’t know when we will succeed but I know we will not have a positive solution if we don’t try.