The Bush administration’s Department of Labor announced plans to gut regulations governing the nation’s agricultural guestworker program today. The proposed changes threaten to significantly cut farmworker wages, lower the bar on farmworker housing, and diminish government oversight of what is already a troubled program.

The agricultural guestworker program has long been criticized by labor economists as an unnecessary and exploitative sop to the powerful agribusiness lobby, designed to provide farm employers with a steady supply of low-wage, docile labor. Decades of stagnant farm labor wages fly in the face of growers’ perennial claims of labor shortages (the logic of labor markets dictates that shortages result in upward pressure on wages, as employers are obliged to increase wages to attract and retain workers). Yet despite the lack of any substantive evidence of labor shortages, the growers’ lobby has found an opportunity in today’s immigration debate to push its longstanding goal to “streamline” guestworker regulations and so expand the use of H2-A workers to harvest the country’s crops.

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said of the proposed changes:

 “The Department of Labor will hurt both immigrant and U.S.-born workers alike if it goes ahead with its plans to strip a number of workers’ rights from the H-2A agricultural guest worker program. The Bush Administration has shown once again that it will go to any extreme to cater to the interest of corporations at the painful expense of workers, and that it is not serious about real fixes to our nation’s broken immigration system.

 The Department of Labor’s proposal will strip the H-2A agricultural guest worker program of necessary wage protections, undermine other essential worker protections, weaken efforts to recruit workers from the U.S., and further erode government oversight.

 In short, it is a policy the will do nothing to solve the problem at hand -the need for a fair immigration policy that protects all workers-and instead will ensure a deterioration of working conditions in the agricultural sector and make our nation’s employers even more reliant on the importation and exploitation of foreign workers.”

Stay tuned in the weeks ahead for more on the proposed changes, as more details become available and plans for organized opposition to the changes develop. In the meantime, you can call your senators and representatives to express your concern, and read this essay by the CIW in response to a similar Bush administration effort in 2004 to expand the guestworker program across all low-wage industries. Here’s an excerpt:

 “… (T)he guestworker relationship is an extremely coercive form of labor relations. As a guestworker, not only does your employer hold your livelihood in his hands, but he also holds your visa, your very right to be in this country. With so much power concentrated under the employers’ control, it is hardly surprising that an inordinate number of recent prosecutions for modern-day slavery and forced labor have involved guestworkers, with cases ranging from New Hampshire to American Samoa. Indeed, the President’s proposal could well undermine efforts to fight slavery more broadly, as giving employers such wide control over their workers’ lives is a proven recipe for exploitation.

 In short, the President’s proposal is the wrong policy for the wrong reasons, and should be rejected. President Bush is attempting to aid the efforts of this country’s low-wage industries to avoid paying competitive wages by granting them access to foreign workers, workers who will end up locked in second-class, dead-end jobs with no hopes of advancement or of ever becoming part of the very country that demands their labor. The proposal will hurt workers already in this country today, it will hurt guestworkers it proposes to import tomorrow, and it will hurt the Latino community whose vote it was designed to win in this election year.

 Though the Administration timed the announcement of its new initiative in an effort to win Latino votes, most Latino and immigrant rights organizations immediately dismissed the President’s proposal as a cynical effort to play on the hopes of their long-suffering members. But if President Bush is really interested in winning Latino and immigrant labor support, he should consider returning to one of the principles that made this country great in the first place:

 Reward work. Raise the minimum wage, restore workers’ rights to organize and collectively bargain, and help win legal status for undocumented workers who are contributing to this country’s wealth. Reward work, not those who would seek government support to exploit already poor workers yet more.”

Read the CIW opinion in its entirety here.