By Marianela Toledo | Florida Watchdog
MIAMI — It’s estimated that more than 11 million undocumented immigrants are living and working in the U.S. While some of them believe that the proposed visa program being hashed out in the White House could inch them a little closer to the American dream, others are not so sure.
“It’s a hope for the people who have been living here in the shadows. But it’s all up in the air, because it hasn’t been mentioned whether it (the reform) will apply to farm workers,” Lucas Benitez, a member and leader of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), told Florida Watchdog.
CIW is a nonprofit organization recognized worldwide for its work in defense of agricultural workers.
“We hope that the reform will also apply to workers in the field, but we don’t know if they will put us in a different category,” Benitez said.
The CIW activists said he fears field workers will be forever stuck in mindless, repetitive work that taxes them physically and offers little to no opportunity for advancement.
Benitez said farm workers earn between $ 13,000 and $ $16,000 annually for full-time work. He said working conditions and low pay largely are to blame for the dwindling numbers of farm workers willing to come to the U.S.
“I think it’s fair to ask why there are shortages of field workers when there is a very high unemployment rate in the country,” he said. “If there are jobs in agriculture, why is the unemployment rate so high?
“A lot of people who are unemployed don´t want to work in a job that requires such physical demands, 40 hours a week, and yet still live below poverty level,” he said.
A study by the Migration Policy Institute brings to light the problem. According its research, the growth of the middle class and the declining birth rate in Mexico are decreasing the stock of workers willing to accept the demanding and low-paying jobs, both in their own country and the U.S. In fact, Mexico is in the transitional phase of being both an exporter and an importer of agricultural labor, which makes the country heavily dependent on Guatemalan agricultural workers.
The study also showed that 70 percent of agricultural workers across the U.S. (excluding temporary workers with H-2A visas) were born in Mexico, and 55 percent don’t have legal documents.
Benitez said that in Florida there are about 100,000 farm workers, but that it’s difficult to know the exact number and how many are undocumented because there are no official figures tracking them.
Rick Roth, owner of 5,000 acres of sugar cane, vegetables and rice in the Everglades agricultural area, also favors farm-worker reform.
Roth, along with the Florida Farm Bureau and the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, will be heading to Washington, D.C. in the coming months to push immigration reform.
“We want them to know that it’s very important to us that they find a way to make our workers legal,” Roth told the Palm Beach Post in a recent interview.
FFVA said that despite the decline in the construction sector, agricultural producers are concerned about having a suitable workforce.
According to FFVA‘s website, the nonprofit supports immigration policies that strengthen national security while facilitating farmers’ access to a stable and legal workforce, including helping them obtain guest worker visas (H2-A visas) for their employees.
The H2-A visa program allows U.S. employers to hire immigrants to work temporarily in the agricultural industry.
To apply, employers have to prove to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service that the job is temporary and that there aren’t enough eligible workers in the United States willing to do the work. They also must provide transportation to and from work, housing, three meals a day and the same net wages as U.S. workers. On completion, the employer must return the workers to their home country. It’s an expensive, complex and confusing proces.
The website Immigrationdirect shows that since 2008 the number of H2-A visas issued has declined — 64,404 were issued in 2008; 60,112 in 2009; and 55,921 in 2010.
“I’m not totally opposed to guest worker program. But I don’t like how they can buy your freedom with it,” Benitez said.
“This program means that you can only work for the company that recruits and employs you. If the crop is damaged and they don’t use you, you can’t work in another industry. They can just ship you back to your country whenever they please without having fulfilled the contract.”
He also said that he knew of cases where workers hired in northern Florida under the H2-A program work under conditions akin to slavery.
That’s exactly what Benitez and the folks at Coalition of Immokalee Workers aim to stop. The CIW, founded in 1993, launched the Campaign for Fair Food in the early 2000s. It succeeded in reaching agreements with major food retailers like McDonald’s, Subway, Taco Bell and Burger King to improve the working conditions and wages of tomato farm workers.
“Right now the industry is embarking on a new day. These agreements ensure that workers are guaranteed at least minimum wage throughout their contracted employment period. We are also doing audits of the participating companies with industry specialists,” Benitez said.
“Publix super market chain and Wendy’s are among the holdouts that still refuse to sign,” he said.
As reported by Watchdog.org on Feb. 7, the immigration reform plan being discussed in the Senate suggests that agricultural workers be “treated differently than the rest of the undocumented population” because of their importance in maintaining the American “food supply.”
“Unfortunately we can’t predict the outcome of the Senate vote due to all the games they play in Washington,” Benitez said. “Let’s hope that in this case, the interest is genuine and that legislators support it.”
Contact Marianela Toledo at Marianela.Toledo@FloridaWatchdog.org.