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Gov't tackles wages, job safety

Published:Friday | February 12, 2010 | 12:00 AM


The Obama administration moved yesterday to increase wages and job-safety protections for temporary farm workers, reversing a Bush era policy that unions said fostered cheap labour and undercut domestic hiring.

The Labour Department issued regulations that, among other things, will require growers to make a greater effort to fill crop-picking jobs with domestic workers. Thousands of foreign workers have been hired to do this work in recent years.

Farm owners have vehemently opposed changes to the H-2A Guest Worker Program since the current administration first attempted to reverse the rules last year. Growers claim the new regulations would make it more burdensome and expensive to hire foreign workers for physically gruelling jobs that most Americans don't want.

But labour and immigrant rights groups claimed the Bush administration regulations had the effect of depressing wages and made it harder for domestic workers to apply for the jobs.

A lawsuit from farm owners last year stopped the Labour Depart-ment from immediately suspending the Bush regulations and forced officials to go through a lengthier notice and comment period for making changes.

Electronic job registry

The new rules, which take effect on March 15, increase the average wage for temporary farm workers by about a dollar an hour. Farm owners must also post farm jobs on a new electronic job registry to make sure domestic workers get first dibs.

Labour Secretary Hilda Solis said the changes reflect the administration's commitment "to providing fair wages and strong labour protections for the most vulnerable groups of workers".

Under the new rules, for example, state workforce agencies must inspect the quality of temporary worker housing before an employer can gain approval to bring in foreign workers.