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Labor Groups Predict More Foreign Farm Workers for OR

December 12, 2008

Hermiston, OR – Oregon farm workers are expressing concern for their livelihoods after the U.S. Labor Department announced changes this week to the process farmers use to hire agricultural workers from other countries. Both farmers and workers have been critical of the H2A (agricultural guest worker program), but neither side thinks the Bush administration’s last-minute rule changes will fix it.

Growers are allowed to hire "guest workers" by first proving they can't find enough local workers. They also are required to supply the guest workers with a minimum wage, housing, and transportation back to their home countries. These requirements are being eliminated under the new proposal.

Ramon Ramirez, president of the Oregon labor group, PCUN, named for the Spanish translation of Northwest Treeplanters and Farm Workers United, says Oregon farms typically employ only about 100 guest workers, but he predicts that will change when employers can bring them in more cheaply than hiring locally.

"It's major, and we think it's going to have a tremendous effect on Oregon. You know, you don't try to change the economy of a state, or try to improve it, by gutting worker protections and paying lower wages."

At the Northwest office of the United Farm Workers of America in Seattle, Vice President Eric Nicholson has two concerns: that the rule changes will lower wages and working conditions for all farmworkers, as well as making it easier to exploit the foreign workers.

"We recognize changes do need to be made to the H2A program, but not in a way that guts the program. It must ensure the integrity of the rights of both domestic and foreign farm workers."

Nicholson also points out that the changes do not include a way to help undocumented workers already in the United States, who have been working on farms and want to do it legally.

Growers say a farm worker shortage forces them to rely on foreign labor. Their complaint has been that the current H2A program is slow and cumbersome; they want it to be more efficient.

The rule changes also include the ability to hire foreign workers for logging. They're set to go into effect in January. Both Nicholson and Ramirez hope Congress can be convinced to take a closer look at the issue before then.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - OR