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U.S. farm labor laws change with time

Farm labor, or the lack thereof, is one of the biggest challenges facing growers today. As the pool of farm labor here in the United States continues to shrink, more growers are looking to foreign, temporary labor as a possible solution. In this first of a two-part report, Dan Bremer of AgWorks, Inc., in Lake Park, Ga., looks at some of the problems farmers face in finding and maintaining a stable workforce. Bremer, who is retired from the U.S. Department of Labor, currently works with growers throughout the Southeast in providing seasonal farm workers and in complying with government regulations.

When you talk about migrant farm labor, you're talking about the most onerous type of labor that exists, says Dan Bremer, a Georgia labor consultant. “These workers come into our country, they may not know our customs, they usually don't know our language and it's hard work — every day from sunup to sundown. It's the hardest labor there is today in the United States,” he says.

Two primary laws affect migrant farm labor, he says, and they include the U.S. Department of Labor's H2A and the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act (MSPA).

“H2A is a way for foreign workers to come here on a visa and harvest your crops,” says Bremer. “The Migrant and Seasonal Worker Protection Act has been around for a long time. And, if you have farm laborers, that law applies to you. If you know the nuts and bolts of these two laws, one way or another you're going to stabilize your labor force. You need a labor force that comes in year after year, harvests your crops and then leaves.”

Many factors currently are affecting farm labor, including immigration laws, he says. “Let's not kid ourselves. Ninety percent of the workers on the farm in the United States today are illegal aliens. They walked across the border in Arizona, came across underneath a car, or paid someone $1,500 to get here. Once they get here, they're ready to go to work on the farm,” says Bremer.

Getting to the United States has been very difficult for many of these illegal aliens, he adds. In the past three to four years, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) hasn't done much about it, he says.

“The INS has concentrated mostly on criminals. If you commit a felonious act while you're here as an illegal alien, you'll probably be deported. But if you're just working on the farm, the INS hasn't been interested. They didn't care until Sept. 11, 2001. On that day, the United States and illegal aliens were awakened.”

Many illegal aliens have been sent home, he says, because there now is more scrutiny of these individuals in the United States. “The INS wants to know why they are here, what they are doing while they are here and where they're located here in the United States. Since Sept. 11, your world has changed. And, if you haven't had a harvest season since Sept. 11, there will be changes in your next harvest season.

“The illegal aliens who are here are going to be sent home. A lot of their family members in Mexico are calling, and they're afraid something will happen to them while they're here. Illegal aliens are subject to the draft in the United States. If you're between 18 and 25 years old, and you're here illegally, you have told the world that you intend to stay in the United States and you're subject to the draft.”

The immigration policy, according to Bremer, is changing. People who are selling false documents are afraid, he adds. “They have heard about the two or three people who were caught selling false documents to some people who commandeered airplanes on Sept. 11, and they're scared to do it. If you're caught falsifying immigration documents in 2002, you're going to the penitentiary, and it won't be long from the time you're arrested until you're sent to prison. The government is becoming more of a factor in farm labor.”

The federal government is becoming more active in enforcing the various laws that apply to migrant farm labor, says Bremer. The people of the United States, he adds, are becoming more aware that illegal aliens are being discriminated against by farm labor contractors and by some farmers.

“The federal government has been awakened to this fact, and they're going to be more and more into your business. In some states, including North Carolina and Georgia, federally funded legal services are paid to find farm workers who have one problem or another, and they sue the farmer. Some of them are very good at it.”

General employment in farm labor isn't as attractive as working in an air-conditioned factory or retail store, says Bremer. It's becoming more difficult, he says, to find people who want to do farm employment in the United States. And, because of these factors, it's harder to find farm workers.

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