NEW YORK — A New York company's plan to import thousands of Chinese peasants as temporary farm workers in California and other states under the 1986 immigration law has drawn fire from Asian-American leaders, union officials and the Labor Department.
Cheeon Fung, project manager for the Chinese Agricultural Manpower Center, said his company signed a contract last month with a Chinese government agency to bring farm workers from northern China to pick grapes, apples, berries and other produce for American growers.
"We hope to bring the best labor to U.S. farmers," Fung said in an interview at the company's cramped three-room office in mid-Manhattan. "These are bona fide professional farm workers. These are not just anybody who's poor and wants to do this. These are workers on state farms."
Fung said he plans to import "several hundred" laborers next March for growers he has contacted in California, Oregon, Florida, Virginia and New York. Ultimately, he said, he hopes to import 10,000 Chinese workers.
"We have asked China to furnish us mostly married men to cut down the possibility of defecting," Fung said.
But critics charge that the program would exploit the Chinese laborers, much as poor Chinese peasants were exploited and persecuted as coolies working on American railroads and in gold fields a century ago, and that it would exacerbate anti-Asian tensions.
Concern Over Backlash
In addition, the plan further fuels controversy over applications by several Southern California garment manufacturers to import large numbers of unskilled, low-wage workers from the Philippines, Guam and other countries.
"Our fear is these programs are creating a backlash against Asians," said Dennis Hayashi, an attorney with the Asian Law Caucus, a nonprofit legal aid group in San Francisco. "It's antagonizing the unions, and it's antagonizing other minority groups, particularly blacks and Latinos, against Asians."
"We are concerned about the perception that Chinese labor is cheap labor," agreed John Wang, deputy executive director of the Chinese-American Planning Council in New York, the nation's largest social services agency for Chinese immigrants. "We are concerned this kind of activity will further inflame anti-Asian sentiment."
Officials said that under the Labor Department's H-2A program, growers may hire foreign workers if they can prove that U.S. workers are unavailable in the area, and that minimum wage, housing and health standards will be maintained. Sixty days notification is required.
But officials said they doubt that the demand exists to justify the cost and the difficulties of importing Chinese farm workers.
"I don't think it's viable," said Duke Austin, spokesman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Washington. "We are unaware of any labor shortages. In fact, we understand there is a labor surplus."
Many Jobless Workers
Al French, special assistant for agricultural labor at the Agriculture Department, called the plan "prohibitively expensive."
"I think it's going to be very difficult to justify the cost of flying them in from China, as opposed to busing them in from Mexico," he said.
Delores Huerta, co-founder and first vice president of the United Farm Workers in Keene, Calif., said California already has thousands of unemployed farm workers.
"It's preposterous," she said. "They want slave labor. They want an apartheid labor system."
Fung, a 40-year-old Hong Kong native, said he was trying to negotiate reduced air fares to lower costs. He denied that the program would take jobs from Americans, or would undercut unions.
"We want to stress that we're not here to take the jobs away from domestic workers," Fung said. "If they want the jobs, they can take them. If they don't want to work, we can bring in people who can help out."
While growers would pay wages and transportation costs, Fung said his company would deduct about 15% from workers' paychecks as a fee for arranging the import program. But Tom Bruening, head of the Labor Department's division of foreign labor certification, said the deduction "certainly would not be permitted under our regulations."
Contract Already Signed
Under Labor Department guidelines, H-2A workers must be paid above the minimum hourly wage. Rates vary from state to state, generally between $4 and $5. The rate in California is $5.17.
Fung said his company is a division of Corpco, a trading company headed by K. K. Soo, former publisher of the Peimei News, a New York-based Chinese language newspaper. Fung said Soo, who was in China this week, signed a contract with the China State Farms Agribusiness Corp., part of the China's giant state farms system, to recruit the farm workers.
Officials at the U.S. Embassy in Peking and the Chinese Embassy in Washington said they were unable to confirm the contract. Officials at the U.S. State Department, Labor Department, Agriculture Department and INS also were unable to confirm the arrangement.