Workers rights threatened by guest worker proposal in Congress

The following appeared as an op-ed in the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus on August 5th, 2017

A bill is quietly wending its way through Congress that would seriously hurt Vermont, our farmers, and the workers who sustain the state’s $1.3 billion dairy industry.

As the Trump administration begins to fulfill its pledges of mass deportation -- and indeed, Trump’s deportation czar just stated that “no population is off the table” -- the 1.5 million undocumented farmworkers are among the hardest hit. Not only are lives upended and families separated, but America’s agricultural system is facing chaos and financial loss, further devastating farms and rural communities.

Over the years, Washington has advanced various measures aimed at agriculture’s fraught labor economy. But instead of crafting a policy that would allow Vermont's current workforce to apply for residence and secure greater protections, Congress is now attempting to expand the abuse-laden H-2A visa program into the dairy industry, displacing current workers.

H-2A visas currently allow temporary workers to enter the country for seasonal farm work: plant and harvest and then go home. But because dairy farming is year-round, not seasonal, the foreign-born workers who milk cows every day, all year, are not eligible for H-2A seasonal visas. There is no way, then, that Vermont’s estimated 1,500 undocumented dairy workers could have qualified for a visa, effectively no “line” that they could have gotten into.

The U.S. House Appropriations Committee recently adopted an amendment to the 2018 homeland security spending bill that would expand H-2A to include dairy farms.  Though there are more votes needed before this measure could become law, last week’s committee vote represents a step towards the expansion of this dangerous anti-worker program.

The creation of a new legal path for Vermont farms to hire migrant workers may sound like a welcome option, but in fact, passage of the amendment would be a step backwards. It would exclude and displace the women and men currently sustaining Vermont’s dairy farms, rather than grant status to the existing labor force and recognize our farmworker neighbors as equals under the law.

Beyond that, guestworker programs themselves are inherently fraught with exploitation and abuse, documented thoroughly by the Southern Poverty Law Center in their report “Close to Slavery.” And by driving down wages and working conditions, they hurt all workers.

Today, one of the few rights undocumented workers have is the ability to “vote with their feet,” a right advanced by farmworkers’ 2013 campaign to win access to driver’s licenses in the state of Vermont. While many farmers comply with existing labor and housing laws, others rely on a business model of worker exploitation and abuse. Some workers endure squalid, overcrowded housing that is frigid in winter, sweltering in summer and that may lack such basic necessities as clean drinking water and functioning bathrooms.

Nonetheless, determined to improve their lot and that of their families, most of Vermont’s undocumented immigrant dairy workers put in 60-80 hours a week, at or below minimum wage, with no overtime pay; nearly half have never had a day off in the course of their employment. And although employers withhold taxes from their paychecks, the laborers get none of the routine benefits that payroll taxes ensure—such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

Migrant Justice is working up and down the dairy supply chain—with workers, farmers, and corporations—to improve those conditions and ensure fundamental human rights. But sometimes, lacking realistic access to legal protections, the best thing for a worker is to leave an abusive farm and find work where conditions are better. If, however, their jobs were tied to a visa, as they would be under the proposed H-2A expansion, workers who left a job—no matter how exploitative—would automatically lose their visas and be subject to deportation.

That vulnerability—built into guest worker programs—has resulted in a well-documented, decades-long history of exploitation, including wage theft and dangerous working and living conditions. Guest workers are bound—almost like indentured servants or sharecroppers—to a specific employer and are often treated more like a pieces of machinery than free human beings.

But Vermont’s dairy workers are not machines that can be replaced. They are skilled, reliable workers who have established a strong and vibrant community and have made the state a better place for all Vermonters.

If the goal of guestworker expansion is to build a more sustainable dairy industry, the solution cannot be to fire the current workers whose labor has sustained farms through a succession of hard times. Replacing them with a guest worker program that breeds systemic abuse and exploitation would not only be a disaster for the workers who have already made Vermont their home, but an economic hardship for Vermont farmers who would have to find and train the new workers.

So what is the solution? Migrant Justice and all members of our Congressional delegation agree on the long-term goal: a comprehensive immigration policy that is, “fair to citizens and immigrants alike,” as Sen. Bernie Sanders wrote in a recent letter to Migrant Justice. It must, he continued, “include a pathway for qualifying farmworkers and their family members to earn legal immigration status … and eventually, citizenship. Temporary work visa programs are often structured as giveaways to corporate America, and have been used to both displace American workers and exploit foreign workers [who can be] cheated out of wages, held captive by employers who seize their documents, forced to live in inhumane conditions, and denied medical attention for on-the-job injuries.”

But the state of Vermont and its dairy workers cannot wait for Congress to act, especially in this time of gridlock and ill will. We have spent the last several years building real solutions here in Vermont that address not only the human rights challenges that workers in the industry confront, but also the root causes of the economic hardships that many dairy farmers face.

Migrant Justice’s Milk with Dignity Program will bring together workers, farmers, participating buyers, and conscientious consumers in a unique collaboration. All workers, wherever they are from, will be educated about their rights and protected from retaliation, and will be able to bring forward questions and complaints. With support from an independent non-profit monitor, they then collaborate with farmers to reach resolutions and make improvements.  Over time, this alliance will lift labor and housing conditions on farms to meet the standards set by a worker-designed Milk with Dignity Code of Conduct. Farmers and brands will benefit from a value-added product that consumers can buy knowing that it is produced by workers whose rights and dignity are respected.

The program will also offer economic relief to participating dairy farmers, softening the impact of the industry’s volatile and unfair milk prices, which currently benefit large corporations who can leverage their purchasing power. This financial premium, paid by participating dairy brands, will reward farms that are working to meet labor standards.

And back in Washington, for any immigration reform to be consistent with human rights and with dairy industry needs, the current labor force of immigrant dairy workers must have the right to apply for lawful, permanent residence. Senator Leahy is a cosponsor of legislation that comes closer to the kind of fair and decent treatment that workers deserve: the proposed “blue card” bill provides a path to citizenship for agricultural workers. And it would still allow workers to “vote with their feet” by not tying their immigration status to a specific workplace. Unfortunately, the bill does not go far enough to protect the rights of all workers, regardless of the industry they work in.

Migrant Justice’s farmworker members are neighbors to all Vermonters; they have worked and fought hard to make Vermont a more inclusive and dignified state. If Vermonters value our rural economy, we should support dairy workers and join in their efforts to secure human rights and dignity. An expansion of the H2-A program would undermine these values.

Will Lambek is an organizer and Enrique Balcazar is a spokesman for Migrant Justice, which is based in Burlington.