Farmworker advocates are accusing the U.S. Department of Agriculture of trying to cut the wages of farmworkers who come to the U.S. on temporary guest worker visas.



While the country was focused on counting votes last week, the U.S. Department of Labor put out some new rules dealing with farmworkers. For hundreds of thousands of these workers, the new rules will mean lower wages. Here's NPR's Dan Charles.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: The new rules apply to a specific group of workers. There are 200,00 of them, and the number is growing. Celso Gonzalez is one of them. He's from Mexico. If he was back home, he says, he's not sure what he'd be doing.

CELSO GONZALEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

CHARLES: He says it's hard to find work there because of the pandemic. Instead, tobacco and sweet potato farmers in North Carolina arranged for him to get a special visa, called an H-2A visa, for seasonal agricultural workers. And that's where he's now working. By law, H-2A workers are not supposed to take jobs away from U.S. workers or undercut their wages, so the government sets the wage that these employers have to pay.

Justin Flores, vice president of a union affiliate called the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, represents some of these so-called guest workers.

JUSTIN FLORES: Our members are making $12.67 in North Carolina.

CHARLES: It's a dollar less in Florida, two dollars more in California. That rate has been going up faster than inflation in recent years because there's a shortage of farmworkers, and some employers have been complaining about those wage increases. In recent weeks, the Trump administration stepped in with some changes. First, it abruptly canceled a survey of farm wages, which had been used to calculate the H-2A wages. Justin Flores had an idea what was coming next.

FLORES: My first thought was Trump administration is coming after our members' wages and financial well-being.

CHARLES: Then last week, the administration announced that it's freezing the wages for H-2A workers - no increases for the next two years. And after that, those wages will be tied to a national index of worker pay that's generally been rising more slowly than farmworker wages. The administration estimates that the change will mean that these workers will collectively earn about $170 million less each year.

Diana Tellefson Torres, executive director of the United Farm Workers Foundation, says it's reprehensible.

DIANA TELLEFSON TORRES: Farmworkers should be paid more not less, especially as they work under the conditions that we're seeing during this pandemic.

CHARLES: Farm employers welcomed the change. Craig Regelbrugge from the industry group AmericanHort, which represents landscapers and plant nurseries, says the new system will be more predictable. And he says farm employers do need the H-2A program. They can't simply pay higher wages to attract more U.S. workers because then they wouldn't be able to compete with imported food.

CRAIG REGELBRUGGE: So it really comes down to the question of, can we farm successfully here? Or are we going to become more and more and more reliant on foreign entities to feed us?

CHARLES: Farmworker advocates say that's overblown. They say workers' pay could go up 40%, and an average household would only pay an extra $25 for a whole year's supply of fruits and vegetables. The next administration could reverse this decision, but the process would take a year or more.

Dan Charles, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.