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A plan far afield



How do you like the Lady Liberty -- it's a trip, isn't it?" Greg Asbed, leader of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, smiles and looks at the group's creation -- an eight-foot Hispanic-looking replica of the Statue of Liberty, precariously perched atop the bed of a beat-up truck in the parking lot of a Fort Myers church. Instead of the flame, she holds a piece of fruit. Her base bears the inscription "I, too, am America."

In a few moments, the statue-bearing truck will lead a procession of roughly 200 Florida farmworkers and their supporters on the beginning of a two-week long, 230-mile march across the state, ending in a March 4 rally across the street from the Orlando offices of the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, a leading agricultural organization.

This unseasonably humid February morning buzzes with anticipation. The marchers clamor about the church parking lot, fashioning posters and passing out T-shirts -- "For the people, of the people," they say. One by one, representatives of about 20 churches, unions, student groups and farmworker organizations step forward to proclaim, "We march for justice!"

For the workers, justice means improving their working conditions, which are considered grossly substandard by everyone save the agriculture industry itself. For decades, that industry has been blemished by reports of a horrendous work environment -- mostly low wages, long hours and miserable living conditions -- and the workers hope that this march, and the media spotlight it attracts, will pressure the industry into recognizing and addressing their concerns.

But more specifically, the march is a response to a controversial piece of legislation introduced in the U.S. Senate last year, and sponsored in part by Democrat Bob Graham of Florida. Labeled the Agriculture Job, Opportunities, Benefits and Securities Act, the bill seeks to revolutionize the troubled farm-labor system by offering a conditional amnesty to the 600,000 to 1 million illegal farmworkers currently working in the United States.

Ideally, the proposed act will stabilize the agriculture workforce while allowing hundreds of thousands of illegals to "step out of the shadows of society," as Graham spokesman Chris Hand puts it.

But farmworker associations don't buy it. To them, the legislation is simply a sheep's skin over the wolf, a scheme that lets the agriculture industry further exploit its already disadvantaged workforce under the guise of progressive reform.

In essence, they say, it will make a bad situation even worse.

Of the roughly 300,000 farmworkers in Florida (agriculture is Florida's second-largest industry, behind tourism), an estimated 52 percent are illegal, nonresident workers. Without them, a harvest season could be disastrous; if workers are scarce when the crops are ready, those crops literally may be left to rot in the fields. But the workers' presence also creates a problem; with so many people competing for seasonal jobs, wages stagnate.

It's a mixed bag for farmers, too. On the one hand, those who hire illegals keep their labor costs low; on the other, they deal with the constant threat that their actions will be discovered. An untimely deportation could be financially devastating. Indeed, the existing legislation, passed in 1986, restricts the ability of U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services and the Border Patrol to crack down on illegal farmworkers. But that hasn't stopped the Internal Revenue Service.

Like everyone else, illegal workers have to produce identification -- in this case, fake -- to collect a paycheck, from which taxes and Social Security payments are deducted. Eventually, the IRS began to notice that an unusually high number of the farmworkers' documents didn't check out, and it started to alert employers that they would be fined if they didn't correct the problem. "That's what panicked them," says Greg Schell, an attorney for the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project.

To avoid this potential complication, the farmers need a way to make their illegal workers legitimate. The '86 legislation faced a similar concern; at the time, Congress granted amnesty to the multitudes of illegal workers, who promptly drifted out of agriculture and into better-paying fields.

The current proposal learns from its predecessor's mistakes. Proposed jointly by Graham (who, critics note, received more than $122,000 in campaign contributions from agriculture interests between 1993 and 1998) and Republican Gordon Smith of Oregon, the legislation grants amnesty to illegal aliens who can prove they spent at least 150 days working in agriculture in the previous year. If they work 180 days a year in agriculture for five of the next seven years, then they earn the right to become permanent legal residents.

Farmworker groups criticize this requirement as a form of indentured servitude. "It's a step back to the 1950s," says Rob Williams, of Florida Legal Services. "We believe in a free labor market where people have the right to choose who they work for and who they don't work for."

"There is a tremendous imbalance of power in the relationship [between employer and adjusted worker]," says Georgetown University law professor and former INS counsel T. Alexander Aileini-koff. As a worker nears the end of his adjustment period, Aileinikoff fears he would be increasingly subject to an employer's whims -- and should he end up unemployed, he could be deported.

The 180-day criterion -- Graham's office says the number was based on a Department of Agriculture survey; it's supposed to represent an average -- also is questionable. "It seems to me that that number is greater than the average number of days most farmworkers work," Aileinikoff says.

"The reality is, a lot of farmworkers don't work 180 days. It's very seasonal," says Jeannie Economos, of the Apopka-based Farmworker Association of Florida. She says a more appropriate number would be around 120.

"That's one of the things we're willing to discuss," Hand concedes. "Sen. Graham has said that nothing in this legislation is handed down from the mountain on stone tablets."

Another contested part of the legislation deals with the nation's 20,000-30,000 H2As, or guest workers. The '86 law lets farmers in need of workers legally recruit foreign labor -- if they first search and fail to find domestic help -- for a specific task. Farmers then must provide housing and pay at least minimum wage.

The Graham-Smith law changes things only a little, but it's enough to rile up farmworker groups. On the surface, the changes appear to be good: Instead of minimum wage, the workers have to be paid a "premium" wage (basically the average of what a farmworker in the area makes, plus 5 percent); moreover, instead of housing, farmers in areas where sufficient rental property exists can give the workers a housing allowance.

Yet below that surface, farmworker groups see both proposals as very dangerous. While the law specifies the premium wage, it allows for it to be paid by group rate. Thus, if the premium wage is $7.50 an hour (roughly Florida's prevailing wage, plus 5 percent), and there were 10 members in a crew, the farmer would have to pay $75 per hour of work. How that money gets distributed after that, however, is anyone's guess.

"It doesn't add up," Economos says. She says "unscrupulous" crew leaders could take advantage of workers, to the point where some might take home less than minimum wage. The law states that no worker can make less than the federal minimum wage, but that "only applies to employers whose employees work at least 500 ‘man days' per quarter, a standard that may exclude as many as half of seasonal workers," Aileinikoff says.

The housing allowance has drawn fire mainly because of the amount the workers would receive. That amount is based on Department of Housing and Urban Development surveys of affected counties, assuming a two-bedroom apartment and two people per room. In the northwest, that allowance would be about $120 a month, Hand says. In Central Florida, that sum rises to $169.50 a month -- still not enough, say farmworker advocates.

Both those arguments may become moot, however, in the wake of another of the bills' provisions, which seeks to streamline the H2A process by establishing a computerized registry system with the Department of Labor. Using $10 million set aside in the 2000 budget, the DOL registry intends to help link farmers to domestic workers, therefore decreasing the utilization of an already sparse program -- especially in Florida, where Graham's office says the number of H2A workers can be counted on one hand.

The law doesn't address conditions for domestic or adjusted workers: that would be left to the market. According to Department of Labor statistics, the average farmworker in Florida makes $7.25 an hour. "We think that's an extremely competitive wage," says Florida Fruit and Vegetable spokesman Walter Kates.

Many farmworker groups dispute that number. Most workers are paid by piecework, not by the hour. The less productive workers, they say, suffer. Schell, who's sued several agriculture companies on behalf of workers, says the hourly pay rate is often miscalculated -- sometimes, workers don't even make minimum wage.

Bridging the divide between the two camps has been difficult, to say the least. For the farmers concerned with global competition, increasing wages could drastically cut their revenue. And yet workers want to be paid proportionally for the difficult manual work they do. The two aren't exactly communicating with each another. "There's no meaningful dialogue," Williams complains.

Farmworker groups say Graham has ignored their concerns -- a charge his office fervently denies. Hand says Graham is in touch with both sides. Not true, Williams says: "It's clear he's [agriculture's] advocate."

The divisiveness of the legislation will likely hurt its chances. Farmworker groups believe the White House will veto as long as the division remains. "The only way they'll get it signed is if we agree on it," Schell says. "The White House would like to see a compromise."

One such compromise was spelled out by Aileinikoff in an essay in The American Prospect titled "The Green Card Solution." He proposes granting green cards to illegals, conditioned upon two years' work in agriculture, as opposed to five in the Graham-Smith bill.

Combining the green cards with better INS enforcement should regulate the workforce and apply pressure to increase wages. Moreover, Aileinikoff argues, correcting the current oversupply of labor will allow farmers to begin mechanizing their operation, as happened in the ;sugarcane industry. "Mechanization is an acceptable outcome," Aileinikoff writes, "when combined with a legalization program for current farmworkers. Their green cards will give them access to the general economy as farm jobs decline."

That's a start, say farmworker groups, but it doesn't really address the conditions. And that's what the march is about.

So it's 16 miles a day for two weeks, until they reach Orlando. "We think the best way to solve the problem is improving wages and working conditions," Asbed says about the legislation. "An incentive to stay instead of a legal barrier to leaving."

And maybe if they make enough noise, someone will listen.


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