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California and the West

Farm Labor Contractor, Union in Pact

The agreement between Global Horizons and the UFW offers benefits for guest workers.

April 12, 2006|Jerry Hirsch | Times Staff Writer

As debate rages over immigration, the United Farm Workers union and an agricultural labor contractor signed a nationwide agreement Tuesday covering guest workers.

"This gives us a chance to have a national contract that protects the rights of agricultural guest workers," UFW President Arturo Rodriguez said.

The contract, which provides such things as medical care and a grievance system, ends a battle between the UFW and Los Angeles-based Global Horizons Inc. over working conditions in the Pacific Northwest.

In December, Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire pulled the company's operating license after regulators accused it of violating state wage and labor laws. Global appealed the decision.

Disagreements over how and whether to expand the use of guest workers and what to do with millions of illegal immigrants, many of them working in agriculture, have stymied efforts by Congress to pass an immigration overhaul in recent weeks.

Farmers in the Southeast and the Northwest use the current H-2A program to make up for a shortage of local farmworkers, said Don Villarejo, an agriculture consultant and former director of the California Institute for Rural Studies in Davis.

The program has been less popular in California, where farmers have relied on a large illegal immigrant workforce, Villarejo said.

The laborers come to the U.S. under the federal H-2A program, which requires employers to provide workers with transportation, housing and wages that exceed state and federal minimum rates.

Under the deal signed Tuesday, union farmworkers will gain protection from retaliation for complaining about treatment through a grievance and binding mediation process, Rodriguez said.

Historically, guest workers who have complained about working conditions have been denied wages and deported, the UFW said.

"The UFW wants the workers to rely on the union rather than the government to enforce the federal rules, and it is true that the government had been slow to do proper enforcement," Villarejo said.

The UFW deal provides the Global workers with a 2% wage increase over the rates mandated in each state under federal rules. The federal minimum for guest workers in California is $9 a hour. The raise will just cover what the workers will pay the UFW in dues.

Another benefit is paid bereavement leave when a family member dies, paid round-trip transportation to their country of origin and further leave time if required.

Additionally, workers will get employer-paid medical care while in the U.S., paid work breaks and seniority status, so that workers are hired or laid off based on their years of service with the company.

Rodriguez said the contract provided a format for Global to expand its business throughout America's farm belt and offered a model for other contracts with farm labor suppliers.

Global has about 3,000 guest and local farm laborers working in 28 states, said Mordechai Orian, the company's president. It plans to bring in an additional 800 over the next month as Global attempts to break into the California market, he said. Global usually brings in workers from Thailand, Vietnam and South Africa. The company said it would work with the UFW to recruit more workers from Mexico.

Orian said growers were nervous about hiring the company to provide workers as long as it was battling with the UFW. He said he believed that the deal would encourage growers who were struggling to find workers to sign with Global, and he said he was "glad to develop a partnership" with the union.

"We are starting with the citrus growers in the Delano and Visalia areas. The growers want to test it out to see if it is really workable," Orian said.

Tom Nassif, president of Irvine-based Western Growers, the largest trade group for fruit and vegetable farmers in California and Arizona, said he was not sure whether Global's efforts to increase its business in California would be successful.

"California farmers aren't going to be anxious to work with a unionized workforce," Nassif said.

Historically, the UFW has not been content to deal with just economic issues and instead has attempted to expand its reach into the management of the farm, he said. Moreover, farmers are concerned that a union might declare a strike at harvest time.

"You can't afford a strike," Nassif said. "We are dealing in perishable goods that have to get picked."

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