Paying no respect

Shame on you! Shame on you!" Though 80 or so farmworker advocates had been marching and chanting for almost an hour, their voices rose in intensity at the sight of their enemy -- the dozen people who had wandered out of an agribusiness-sponsored labor-relations forum Sept. 28 at the Holiday Inn on International Drive.

Being the focus of such hostility had a curious effect on the group. At first, they chatted among themselves, some smoking cigarettes. They didn't go back inside. They looked bewildered, as if they couldn't comprehend what the protesters were complaining about. Some looked amused.

That reaction seems to exemplify how agribusiness has treated its laborers over the years. Despite long hours for terribly low pay with no benefits, farmworkers get no respect from their employers.

One would think that dynamic would be changing. Lately, agribusiness has been complaining that it can't manage to find enough people to work its fields. Such a shortage should put farmworkers in a strong position for bargaining.

But it's not playing out that way. Agribusiness isn't paying better to retain its shrinking numbers of valued workers. Instead, the industry went to Congress asking for a favor: a way to increase the labor pool. Sen. Bob Graham was waiting with open arms, perhaps due to the more than $122,000 that agribusiness had lavished on him from 1993-98 alone. He co-sponsored the Agriculture Job, Opportunities, Benefits and Securities Act, which gives "guest workers" -- formerly illegal immigrants now allowed to work in the country 10 months out of the year -- a permanent green card, provided they work 180 days a year for five out of seven years [see A plan far afield, March 1, 2000].

The legislation goes even farther. For example, employers have the option of providing "housing vouchers," which advocates complain don't cover the cost of housing. And securing 180 days of work is not always possible. What the bill amounts to is a great deal for agribusiness -- who wouldn't want workers indentured for at least five years? -- while basically doing nothing for farmworkers.

All this is based on the fallacy, perpetrated by agribusiness, that there aren't enough workers. There are, but many farmworkers have begun moving on to better-paying opportunities. To stabilize the work force, all agribusiness needs to do is raise wages, not ask the government to employ indentured servitude.

As Frank Coriel, director of the United Farm Workers Union, puts it, "There's got to be something better, something to make it appeal to workers and acceptable to farmers."

Critics have been harsh, but the legislation has surged ahead regardless. The U.S. House of Representatives is expected to vote on the issue as early as this week. Still, Graham told a reporter last week that without a compromise, "there's no chance that that's going to become law."

Maybe. President Clinton has promised a veto, but some expect the House Republicans to be less than direct in shuffling the legislation through the House. Bruce Goldstein, director of the Farmworker Justice Fund, thinks the House leadership will attach the bill to a larger spending piece to thwart the veto. After all, they've tried that tactic twice before, in 1996 and 1998.

Even if agribusiness fails again this year, the legislation will likely resurface quickly, especially if the Republicans gain control of both the Congress and the Oval Office. (George W. Bush supports the legislation.) Goldstein would like to see something different. "My hope is if this is stopped this time," he says, "they will have tried for five years, [so] in the next Congress, maybe we can move beyond these exploitive proposals."

The conference protesters were taking advantage of what could have been their last chance to make a statement before votes are cast. They hoped that if they made enough noise, maybe agribusiness would agree to a dialogue.

Judging by the reaction of those dozen forum participants, probably not.

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