By Diego Graglia, FI2W web editor
As soon as she took office Friday, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solís moved to reverse a rule affecting guest farmworkers that former President George W. Bush had modified in his last days in office.
The changes included eliminating duplication among state and federal agencies in processing applications, putting in place a new wage formula, and increasing fines for willfully displacing United States citizens with foreign workers.
Critics said Bush’s rules would push already poor wages even lower, reduce worker protections, and make it easier to hire foreigners without actually looking for American employees first.
Solís had been among the many critics of Bush’s decision, which was made in December but went into effect Jan. 17, three days before President Barack Obama was sworn in. At the time, then-U.S. Rep. Solís issued a statement calling the Bush rules “just the latest example of how out of touch the president is with working families, especially with Latino families that make up a large portion of the farmworkers in this country.”
On Solís’ first day in office, the Labor Department announced in a statement “the proposed suspension for nine months” of the rule. Solís said in the release:
Because many stakeholders have raised concerns about the H-2A regulations, this proposed suspension is the prudent and responsible action to take.
Suspending the rule would allow the department to review and reconsider the regulation, while minimizing disruption to state workforce agencies, employers and workers.
Bush’s changes had been called “a backstab to immigrants” and “a cheap shot.” The Republican administration said it sought to make the H-2A program –which grants visas under that name to temporary foreign farmworkers– less cumbersome for employers who had shunned it because of the large amounts of red tape they faced.
After Solís’ decision last week, pro-immigrant activists were satisfied.
“…this is important because the type of labor protections permitted under H-2A influences the labor protections that could be granted under an eventual immigration reform,” Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA), told La Opinión.
Farmworker Justice’s blog Harvesting Justice said, “The Bush Administration may have tried its best to leave a legacy of abuse for our nation’s farmworkers but the new administration is apparently not so willing to go along with it.”
The proposed H-2A rules suspension is open to a 10-day public comment period.
Growers are expected to oppose any new change, especially since many have placed orders for workers and are counting on them.
The Bush rules had reduced red tape, Jasper Hempel, executive vice president of the Western Growers Association, told The New York Times.
But he said the nation needed legislation, known as the AgJOBS bill, that would stabilize the farm labor situation by giving the more than one million illegal farm workers a path to legalization.
At her swearing-in ceremony Friday –which included an Obama-style oath fumble–, Solís made clear she intends “to be protector-in-chief of the nation’s workers,” CBS News‘ Mark Knoller wrote.
“To those who have for too long abused workers, put them in harms way, denied them fair pay – let me be clear: there is a new sheriff in town,” Solís said.