By Don Jenkins
Originally Posted at Capital Press
OLYMPIA — Labor and grower representatives adopted Monday a wide-ranging charter to study how foreign and American farmworkers are recruited and treated in Washington.
The eight-member committee — four farmer and four worker advocates — is expected to produce a report for state lawmakers in 14 months. Any policy recommendation will take five votes to pass.
Committee members said they expected tough discussions at their monthly meetings, but were hopeful the panel could agree on some issues.
“We don’t expect miracles overnight. We know it’s hard work,” said Rosalinda Guillen, executive director of Community to Community Development, a critic of farm labor practices.
The committee stems from the Employment Security Department’s proposal this year to tax farms that hire foreign workers through the federal government’s H-2A visa program.
The department said the federal government wasn’t giving it enough money to verify a shortage of American workers, investigate complaints and conduct a wage survey.
Farm groups opposed the tax, and legislators didn’t adopt it. Lawmakers did, however, authorize a new office within the employment department charged with protecting and helping farms get workers.
The office will have 14 full-time positions and an annual budget of about $1.7 million, according to legislative records.
Lawmakers also created the committee to advise the office. At its first meeting Monday, the committee took care of housekeeping and embraced a mandate from the employment department to study whatever the panel “determines requires consideration.”
The committee convenes as Washington farms increasingly rely on foreign seasonal workers. Labor activists say the imported workers are vulnerable to exploitation and displacing Americans. The industry say the H-2A program is expensive and regulated and necessary because of a labor shortage.
“That’s an issue that requires a fact-finding discussion,” Washington Growers League Executive Director Mike Gempler said. “I think it’s going to be a major part of what this committee deals with.”
Ramon Torres, president of the farmworker union Familias Unidas por la Justicia, said he’s seen “a lot of abuse.”
“We don’t want to have strikes. We want to have open dialogue,” Torres said through an interpreter. “We’re glad we have a voice. We want to be heard.”
Besides Torres and Guillen, workers are represented by Northwest Justice Project attorney Michele Besso and United Farm Workers Vice President Erik Nicholson.