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Pam Lewison: New federal rule seeks to use farmworkers to benefit unions at expense of privacy rights

Pam Lewison

Washington state is temporarily home to an average of 30,000 agricultural workers every year.

Under the H-2A agricultural visa program, our agricultural employers can fill the employee void on their farms and ranches by hiring employees from abroad to help grow and harvest the food for which our state is famous.

The program, while not without flaws, does provide above-average wages via the Adverse Effect Wage Rate, free housing, medical care, transportation for foreign-born workers, and opportunities to provide workers’ families with a better life.

The program also benefits local workers through the AEWR. If an H-2A worker is employed on a local farm, any local employee working alongside that H-2A worker, must be paid at the higher AEWR pay scale, too.

This autumn, the U.S. Department of Labor, has proposed changes to the H-2A program. Among the proposed changes is one to “improve farm worker union density” on farms.

Historically, farmworkers have not been part of union structures. When the National Labor Relations Act was passed in 1935, there were approximately 6.8 million farms in the U.S. At the time, there was also a population of just 127 million people in the U.S., or about 18 people per farm. Most farms and ranches in the U.S. employed family members or, perhaps, one or two people from outside the family.

The proposed method for “improved density” is concerning. In almost every setting, employers are asked to keep the personal information of their employees confidential. Under the DOL proposal, however, employers would be required to turn over personal contact information – including WhatsApp handles – to any union who demanded it up to twice a year, even if the farmworkers had not consented to having their information shared.

Farmworkers are a vulnerable population. Often speaking a different language and primarily working in a place that is not their home country. Taking their privacy rights from them is both an egregious intrusion and extraordinarily unfair.

If we, as a nation, want to create an environment in which farmworkers wish to feel empowered to make their own choices, we need look no further than simply asking the questions and listening for the answers. Recent farmworker rallies held in Quincy, Washington, protesting the phased-in overtime law, have highlighted the “we know better” approach state’s lawmakers took when Senate Bill 5172 was passed two years ago with input almost exclusively from farmworker unions in our state.

The people who have suffered the most under the law have been farmworkers themselves. They have seen a dramatic cut in their take-home pay.

Now, the federal government is looking to do the equivalent of Washington state by saying, “We know better.” The Department of Labor is proposing to take away the ability of farmworkers to choose if they wish at all to be contacted by farmworkers unions in a desire to “improve the density” of farmworkers unions on farms nationwide – regardless of the potential consequences.

There are compromises that can be made to find a fairer answer. The federal government can ask employers to have their employees opt in or out of providing their information to farmworkers unions. Employers can also be asked to post information about farmworkers unions in breakrooms or rest areas on their farms or ranches should that information be provided to them.

Providing every individual with the opportunity to make their own informed decisions on privacy is important. Farmworkers are their own people and should be treated as such. Whether they have come to the U.S. on a 10-month H-2A visa and are improving the overall earnings of everyone they work with by triggering the payment of the AEWR or are a local worker improving the overall economy by working hard for his or her own family, each person deserves the courtesy and respect of being allowed to choose for themselves.

The current proposal by U.S. Department of Labor gives no choice to our farmworker community but to be contacted by farmworker union members and advocates – for better or worse – even if that is not what they want.

Pam Lewison is director of the Center for Agriculture at the Washington Policy Center. She works her family farm near Moses Lake.