The United Farm Workers union and US growers have come to an agreement on a new guest worker program that will be included in the Senate immigration reform bill.
The agreement calls creation of a new guest worker program to replace the current H-2A program and legal status for farm workers who entered the United States illegally.
Officials said they would work over the weekend to flesh out the agreement. The Agriculture Workforce Coalition, representing a dozen U.S. farm groups, said the agreement was a step toward assuring a legal workforce on U.S. farms and ranches.
Many of the 1.5 million agricultural workers, perhaps 500,000-900,000 in all, are believed to be undocumented aliens. Farmers, ranchers and nursery operators say the immigrant workers are vital because it is difficult to recruit Americans for the low-paying, often back-breaking labor such as picking fruit or daily care of livestock.
Immigration reform has two major components for agriculture - assuring a workforce in the short-term and a long-term plan for foreign workers filling U.S. jobs.
Farm workers in the country illegally who agree to work in agriculture for an additional five to seven years would become eligible for a "green card" allowing permanent U.S. residence, according to two officials. The workers hold legal status, dubbed a "blue card" by negotiators, during the interim.
The new guest worker program would include a system for setting pay scales and initially would have a high ceiling for the number of visas that could be granted. After five years, the cap could be adjusted by the Agriculture Department. There would be a mechanism for meeting emergency needs for workers.
A wage base would be set for six occupational categories with a mechanism to adjust wages annually. The four major job categories would be crop workers, livestock workers, sorters and graders who work in packing houses, and equipment operators.
"For many farmers across the country, finding a sufficient number of workers to harvest crops or care for animals is the biggest challenge they face in running their businesses," said the grower coalition. "There is a shortage of U.S. workers willing and able to perform farm work."
This has been a systemic problem for US agriculture for decades. The issue has always been a shortage of labor which has jacked up costs for growers trying to attract even transient labor to perform the back breaking work of the harvest. The program appears to try and tackle this issue by setting wage levels for different work. That, and the increase in visas may ease the problem somewhat.
Are there really not enough Americans willing to work tending and harvesting crops and livestock? Not with wages at or near minimum. With the small margins for growers, they simply can't afford to offer the kind of wages that would attract Americans to the fields. Not that there's any evidence that even with better wages, Americans would flock to farms and orchards to work. We are a society that now devalues manual labor and the guest worker program would appear to be necessary for the agricultural industry to survive.