A coalition of labor and civil rights groups is pressing Congress to start making growers pay unemployment insurance premiums for foreign farm workers.
An exemption for agricultural employers who hire temporary foreign laborers is due to expire at the end of the year. According to the National Coalition for Farmworkers Justice, the provision has already saved growers millions of dollars and has encouraged widespread use of foreign migrants at the expense of the domestic work force.
Legislation now before the House would continue the exemption until 1982. The proposal is largely supported by the farming industry.
Coalition leaders seeking to end the exemption contend that it not only gives aliens an edge for jobs, but also tends to shortchange domestic farm laborers who work alongside the temporary foreign help.
"Under this exemption, aliens brought into this country to work temporarily in agriculture are excluded from unemployment insurance coverage and are not counted toward the total employe workdays criteria for determining whether employers must give coverage to domestic workers," says Pam Browning of the National Association of Farmworker Organizations, one of the 30 groups in the coalition. "Because employers need not pay into the unemployment fund for temporary foreign workers, in many cases they need not pay for U.S. workers as well."
Foreign farm laborers are brought to the United States under the so-called H-2 program administered by the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Department of Labor. The program allows aliens to come in on a temporary basis only "if unemployed persons capable of performing such labor cannot be found in the country."
Growers in 11 states, mostly on the East Coast, hired an estimated 15,000 H-2 workers last year. They work in apple orchards in the Northeast, sugar cane fields in the Southeast and onion fields in Texas. But generally they do not move from state to state and are restricted to the individual grower who brought them in for a specific season.
The unemployment insurance exemption went into effect in 1976. Growers in 10 additional states are now in the process of requesting H-2 workers.
Many argricultural employers and state employment service officials argue vigorously that residents say they can make more money on public assistance and avoid the often hard and dangerous jobs in the fields. In Belle Glade, Fla., for instance, state employment service officials said they had at least hundreds of jobs "going begging" because residents wouldn't take them.
However, coalition leaders argue that growers - who also are exempt from paying Social Security benefits for the imported workers - often ignore the domestic work force in favor of the cheaper labor.
"Temporary labor programs pit poor and powerless U.S. workers against even more powerless alien workers," Browning said.
The Labor Department cautiously agrees, at least as far as unemployment insurance exemptions are concerned.
"We don't believe that employers of alien workers should be exempt, because the exemption makes the alien worker more attractive than the domestic worker," said Lawrence Weatherford, deputy assistant secretary of labor for employment in training.