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Suit Against Grower Intensifies Guest-Worker Program Debate

Under federal law, foreigners may be brought in on temporary visas for a company suffering a labor shortage.

November 13, 2002|Lee Romney | Times Staff Writer

A lawsuit against a north San Diego County tomato grower has become the latest salvo in the debate over a federal program that allows foreign workers to come to the United States to offset temporary labor shortages.

Only two agricultural companies in California have used the guest-worker program -- a controversial component of congressional immigration reform -- and both have now been sued. Farm-worker advocates say the temporary visa program invites abuses of both foreign and domestic workers and that immigration reform should focus instead on helping to legalize workers already in the U.S. labor force.

The agricultural industry "would like to transform the farm labor force into a force of guest workers rather than legal residents," said Bruce Goldstein, co-executive director of the Farmworker Justice Fund in Washington, D.C. "That's really what this fight is about."

But industry representatives counter that the lawsuits underscore the need to make the program less bureaucratic for growers. The farmers say it has been increasingly difficult to find dependable workers because of a post-Sept. 11 immigration crackdown and because legal workers are increasingly moving into more stable -- and less grueling -- jobs.

"It's turning out that anyone who decides to enter that program is literally drawing a target on their chests and inviting lawsuits for infractions," said Eric Larson, executive director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau.

The most recent lawsuit was filed on behalf of immigrant farm workers who were laid off from their jobs at Harry Singh & Sons in September, just days before 168 laborers were brought in from Mexico under the federal guest-worker program to replace them.

Singh attorney Merrill "Rick" Storms said the company was reeling from Border Patrol raids on its immigrant work force and facing a looming tomato harvest when it applied in July to bring in the Mexican laborers. Permission was granted by the U.S. Department of Labor to do so beginning Sept. 26. Meanwhile, the grower bused workers from the Coachella Valley in Riverside to its fields.

The lawsuit alleges that on Sept. 21, the Coachella workers were told the bus service would be discontinued, and that they could keep their jobs only if they found housing near the company's leased fields at the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base.

According to the lawsuit, Singh failed to offer the displaced workers, who had immigration papers, the same free housing and higher wages that the company was offering the foreign workers. The suit also alleges that working conditions were diminished by the elimination of bus service and a failure to make good-faith efforts to recruit domestic workers.

"They were terminated from their jobs in anticipation of the guest workers' coming in to fill their positions," said Cynthia Rice, litigation director for California Rural Legal Assistance, which filed the action now pending in U.S. District Court in San Diego. "When local workers went over to apply for work, they were basically given the runaround."

Rice stressed that her organization is not taking a position on the visa program, which California growers are pushing to liberalize. However, "if this is going to be a program that is used in California, then the U.S. Department of Labor is going to have to start paying attention" to labor violations, she said.

A federal judge late last month ordered Singh & Sons to offer the free housing and $8.02-an-hour jobs to the Coachella workers, who had been earning $6.75 an hour. Storms said the company believed it had made such an offer to the workers, but may not have communicated effectively. It has now sent the workers letters offering them jobs, but Rice said most have families and cannot relocate to the coast.

About 45,000 agricultural workers a year come to the U.S. under the guest-worker program, mostly to North Carolina and Florida. In California, the program has mainly been used to import a steady trickle of Peruvian shepherds. But in the past year, growers have sought to use it too. A Santa Paula labor contractor who imported Mexican workers earlier this year is believed to have been the first in the agricultural industry to use the program on a large scale. He too was sued by California Rural Legal Assistance -- which alleged that he failed to provide adequate breaks and to pay Mexican lemon pickers wages required under California law.

Like that contractor, Storms said the undocumented status of much of the Singh & Sons work force prompted the company to turn to the visa program. About two-thirds of the tomato grower's fields are leased from Camp Pendleton, and post-Sept. 11 immigration crackdowns at the Marine Corps base revealed that many workers had false documents. Immigration officials boarded the company's bus in July as it entered the base and detained three-fourths of the workers, Storms said.

Storms said the company lost $2.5 million when the labor shortage left the grower unable to properly tend the tomato crop. Farm-worker advocates contend that there are available workers who would take such jobs.

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