Cruelty Without Regrets, Trump Administration Drastically Cuts Farmworker Wages

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It seems like Donald Trump is not so sure he can stay in the White House by force.

According to Farmworker Justice, a nonprofit organization that seeks to empower migrant and seasonal farmworkers, the administration decided to crack down on the immigrant workforce before leaving office. 

A November 2 announcement from the Department of Labor (DOL) showed a new regulation under the H-2A guest worker program that seeks to change wage protection for U.S. and foreign workers at agricultural employers.

The new rule would change the methodology used to determine current wage rates for workers on H-2A visas. 

Until now, minimum wage rates for most of these workers were established through a twice-yearly survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which asked farms for data on their workers’ hours and earnings. 

The Trump administration has sought to discontinue that survey and intends to base future wage increases on the Department of Labor data from 2023.

In the intervening years, prevailing wage rates, which vary from state to state, would remain at their 2019 levels, leaving workers’ pay stagnant. Once wage increases resume, experts say they are likely to be lower for most field workers than they would have been under the previous methodology.

Workers with H-2A visas come from Mexico and other countries to work temporarily on U.S. farms, usually picking and processing crops. Workers’ advocates say that the extensive use of guest workers means that the agricultural labor market does not function as a free market since these foreign workers are poorer and more willing than Americans to accept below-market pay.

According to the Huffington Post, the law requires employers to pay guest workers a prevailing minimum wage known as the Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR) so their pay is not so low as to undermine that of U.S. workers. In most cases, that prevailing wage comes from the survey that Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue has decided to suspend.

Although the Department of Labor published the new regulation last week, the new regulation’s formal publication will occur in the Federal Register shortly. The rule will go into effect 45 days later, in time for the 2021 seasons. 

Senior agency officials said in a call to reporters just before election day that the change would give employers more stability and predictability when it comes to wage increases. They described the current pay rates determined by the agricultural survey as too volatile, making it difficult for employers to plan their payroll each year.

“It is a victory for farmers, agricultural workers, and the American people, who rely on a vibrant agricultural sector to supply food for our families,” John Pallasch, the Labor Department’s assistant secretary for employment and training, said in a statement. 

But as the agency’s own analysis shows, the rule would undoubtedly bring growers long-term savings on labor costs relative to the status quo.

The rule’s text says it would lead to “transfer payments” of an estimated $1.68 billion over ten years. As a Labor Department chart makes clear, that term is a euphemism: H-2A workers would be transferring $1.68 billion to their employers in the form of lost wages.

Bruce Goldstein, Farmworkers Justice’s president, told HuffPost, “the government has designated farmworkers as essential workers; they’re expected to work during a pandemic. The federal government refused to mandate safety standards to protect farmworkers and others against COVID-19. Now the administration is punishing farmworkers by effectively cutting their wage rates. It’s just cruel and unreasonable.”