Chairman Smith: The agriculture industry needs to hire hundreds of thousands of seasonal workers each year to put food on Americans' tables. However, many workers with better options choose to work elsewhere.
Even though Congress devised the H-2A program to meet the needs of our growers, half of farm workers remain illegal immigrants. This is because, as the Department of Labor has admitted, most growers "find the H-2A program so plagued with problems that they avoid using it altogether."
Our agricultural guestworker program needs to be fair to everyone it impacts -- American growers, farmworkers, consumers and guestworkers.
A program must provide growers who want to do the right thing with a reliable source of legal labor. It must protect the livelihoods of American workers and the rights of guestworkers. And it must keep in mind the pocketbooks of American families.
H.R. 2847, "the American Specialty Agriculture Act," accomplishes these goals. It establishes an H-2C guestworker program responsive to the needs of American growers while maintaining strong policies to protect citizens and legal workers. And it does so without the fraud-ridden mass amnesty for illegal immigrant farmworkers that failed in 1986.
The H-2C program makes commonsense changes to the current bureaucratic, unworkable H-2A program.
Under the current H-2A program, users believe that they face a culture of hostility within the Department of Labor. That's why the bill puts the Agriculture Department in charge of the H-2C program.
Growers have to contend with a steep mound of red tape to secure H-2A workers. The Bush Administration tried to streamline the process by making it "attestation"-based, just like the H-1B program for high-skilled workers. Unfortunately, the Obama Administration rescinded these changes. The bill makes the H-2C program attestation-based as it once was.
Growers have long complained about the tremendous expense of the H-2A program and the required "adverse effect" wage rate, which is artificially high. After factoring in other program expenses, such as housing, processing fees and transportation costs, H-2A users have to pay up to $15 an hour for H-2A workers. This puts them at a competitive disadvantage in the marketplace.
The bill requires growers to pay H-2C workers and American workers the prevailing wage, which is lower than the "adverse effect" wage rate but is high enough to prevent the program from depressing the wages of American workers.
The H-2A program requires that growers provide H-2A workers with free housing. This can be burdensome for those growers who may need foreign workers for only a few weeks a year. The bill allows growers to provide a housing voucher instead of actual housing.
Dairies and certain other agricultural producers cannot use the H-2A program because they employ workers year-round and the H-2A program is only available for temporary or seasonal work. The bill opens up the H-2C program to these employers.
Growers who use the H-2A program are constantly subject to abusive and frivolous litigation by H-2A workers. The bill allows growers to include binding arbitration in contracts with H-2C workers.
It is crucial to ensure that H-2C workers remain guestworkers. The bill therefore requires workers to return home after 10 months each year.
Finally, the bill allows up to half a million foreign workers a year to receive H-2C visas. This will be more than enough to make up for a loss of illegal immigrant workers.
American specialty crop growers hire about 800,000 individual farmworkers each year on a seasonal basis. The U.S. Department of Labor reports that 48% of seasonal agricultural workers are illegal immigrants. Half a million H-2C workers more than meets the legitimate need.
The American Specialty Agriculture Act finally puts in place a fair and workable guestworker program for American growers. It will help American growers hire a legal workforce and protect American workers. And it will help ensure that American growers continue growing our crops and helping our economy.