Earlier this week, lawmakers clashed over whether to establish a minimum wage for immigrant farm workers. Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Saxby (Chamm-BLISS) Chambliss offered an amendment that would create a new formula for establishing the prevailing wage for all workers who would be eligible for legal status in this country. The Georgia Republican wanted to remove a provision assuring wages of $7.86 an hour to the approximately 1.5 million undocumented workers who would be given legal status. Instead, he proposed they be paid a "prevailing wage" as determined by the Labor Department.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Georgia: "We agree the adverse affect wage rate is wrong. How do we correct it? How do we get to the point where it's fair? You take the same method of calculation that we do under every other labor bill. I say let's put a prevailing wage rate on H-2A."
Currently, the U.S. has two main programs for guest workers. Agricultural guest workers enter through the H-2A visa program and other guest workers enter through the H-2B visa program. H-2A allows for the temporary admission of foreign workers to the U.S. to perform agricultural work of a seasonal or temporary nature, provided that U.S. workers are not available.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Georgia: " Whether you're a farmer in California or Georgia or the northeast part of the country, the market should dictate."
Senator Edward Kennedy vehemently disagreed with the Chambliss amendment. The Massachusetts Democrat argued prevailing wages often amount to just $3 to $4 an hour.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Massachusetts: "$3 or $4 an hour! We might not have many farmers in Massachusetts, but whoever we have there understands below poverty wages. If it's so troublesome that they are going to be paid $7.86 an hour, for someone who does some of the most difficult work in this country, then go ahead and vote for the Chambliss amendment."
Ultimately, the Senate rejected the Chambliss amendment 50 - 43. But, a guest worker program backed by Senators Edward Kennedy and Idaho Republican Larry Craig emerged essentially intact. Their proposal, dubbed AgJOBS, would allow undocumented alien agricultural workers to complete a two-step process in order to become permanent U.S. residents. According to Senator Craig, the AgJOBS program streamlines the so-called H-2A guest worker program.
Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho: "If we want American agriculture to transition into a legalized workforce, then we need to get there in a way that allows the worker to be treated fairly, the producer to be treated fairly, but most importantly, that we have an available legal workforce to meet the needs of American production agriculture."
For the past year, farmers have been concerned about a potential labor shortage, fueled last week by a U.S. Agriculture Department report showing 4 percent fewer workers on American farms than a year ago. Some producers say that if they do not have an adequate workforce, they may be forced to move their farms to other countries.
In addition to a new guest worker program, the measure approved by the Senate this week would improve border security and open the door to eventual citizenship for an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants.
But, the real battle over immigration reforms is yet to come as lawmakers will need to hammer-out a compromise between the Senate measure and a much tougher immigration bill passed by the House last year. It would criminalize all immigrants in the country illegally and contains no provisions for a new guest worker program.
For Market to Market, I'm Laurel Bower Burgmaier.