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Feds buckle under pressure, will issue annual wage rates

August 01, 2001|By MARINE COLE, Special to this newspaper

WASHINGTON (MNS) — Under pressure of a lawsuit from farm worker unions, the federal Labor Department said it would issue annual wage rates in August for agricultural guest workers, most of whom are from Mexico.

"It is unfortunate that the secretary of labor chose to delay issuance of wage rates applicable to the poorest of the working poor," said Bruce Goldstein, co-executive director of the Farmworker Justice Fund, a litigation and advocacy group and one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs. "We will be watching."

The hearing on the lawsuit, which was filed by the United Farm Workers of America in Keene, Calif., the Farm Labor Organizing Committee in Toledo, Ohio, as well as two farm workers from North Carolina who were being underpaid, had been scheduled for Monday in the U.S. District Court in Washington but was canceled.

"(We) are aware that the new wages have been released," said Rosalinda Guillen, legislative director for the UFW. "It's a response to our lawsuit. We felt that if we didn't do anything, they would not raise the wages. They really have no defense."


Guillen said farm workers, including guest workers, are the lowest-paid and hardest-working in the United States. The lawsuit sought a preliminary injunction requiring the department to publish the wage rates in the Federal Register and enforce them.

The department avoided the hearing by promising the publication of the wage rates this week. Labor Department officials were not available for comment.

The agricultural guest worker program allows employers who claim a labor shortage to bring in foreign workers on temporary visas called H-2A's to perform seasonal jobs.

The federally established rate for field and livestock workers is supposed to protect the U.S. farm jobs and wages from the impact of hiring inexpensive foreign workers. For the past 10 years, the department has issued the rates in February, but Labor Secretary Elaine Chao argued to the plaintiffs that the law allowed her to issue the 2001 wage rates as late as Dec. 31. Goldstein responded that by acting in such a way, no one would receive the 2001 wage rate during the year 2001.

"Thousands of U.S. and foreign workers are being underpaid," he said.

Citing Labor Department figures, Goldstein said 81 percent of all farm workers are foreign born and 95 percent of foreign-born farm workers are Mexicans. A General Accounting Office study showed in 1996, 68 percent of guest workers with an H-2A visa were from Mexico. The second most largest group of guest workers was from Jamaica.

Goldstein said the number of guest workers has increased since then, particularly those from Mexico. He said farm workers were as affected by low wages as guest workers are because the about 6,300 employers who participate in the guest worker program must pay the 2001 wages both to foreign workers and domestic farm workers.

According to the Farmworker Justice Fund, Reps. Major Owens, D-N.Y., and George Miller and Howard Berman, both California Democrats, wrote to the Labor Department in February to criticize the failure to issue the rates and to request an end to the delay. The department approved about 48,000 jobs for the guest worker program for 2000.

Goldstein said North Carolina was the state with the most guest workers, with 10,000 approved each year, who work mainly in the tobacco fields, cucumbers and Christmas trees industries.

The new rates in California rose from $7.27 an hour in 2000 to $7.56 in 2001. Texas got the highest raise along with Oklahoma with a 7.6 percent increase from $6.49 an hour in 2000 to $6.98 in 2001. Wages in New Mexico as well as in Arizona decreased from $6.74 an hour in 2000 to $6.71 in 2001.

Guillen said the union was pleased with the department's decision.

"That's what we wanted, but it's still pretty low," Guillen said.

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