Posted on Mon, Dec. 15, 2008
Rule changes target vulnerable workers
OUR OPINION: Don't allow last-minute regulations to erode standards
The torrent of new rules being issued by the Bush administration as it heads out the door is turning into a regulatory fiasco. The changes have lowered the bar on environmental review across the board, from limiting worker exposure to toxins to ignoring provisions of the Clean Water Act and softening, if not gutting, the Endangered Species Act. Late last week, new rules targeted vulnerable members of the labor force -- farmworkers.
The midnight changes have a sad history. At least since the days of the Carter administration, presidents have tried to extend their reach into the tenure of the next chief executive by putting in place last-minute rules that the successor will have difficulty rescinding. The fact that all presidents do it, however, does not excuse the regulatory end-run, especially when the rules seem like a favor to special interests rather than thoughtful changes in policy.
The new farmworker regulations are a case in point. Because farmworkers don't enjoy the protections of the National Labor Relations Act, they have traditionally been prey to abuses that a succession of administrations have tried to correct through Labor Department policy rules. The latest changes don't augur well for the farmworkers.
Rules that are to be published this week and which would take effect just days before President Bush leaves office would: make it easier to hire foreign ''guest workers'' -- to the detriment of Americans willing to work in the fields; lower wage standards; and weaken oversight of farm hiring.
This revision will hurt those who can least afford any cuts in pay or erosion of job protections. The changes in hiring rules are particularly egregious because the greatest fear of domestic farmworkers is being displaced by foreign guest workers who are less familiar with their rights and more likely to remain quiet when those rights are abused for fear of being deported.
Reversing the new H-2A rules, as they are known, won't be easy. It would require going through a lengthy ''notice and comment'' rule-changing process again next year. The best thing that President-elect Barack Obama can do is to push for enactment of a bipartisan AgJobs bill already in Congress that has the support of both farmworker unions and agricultural growers.
The proposal includes some of the changes in the H-2A proposal but with a significant difference: It would link the program to a path for legalization of undocumented farmworkers who pledge to continue working in agriculture for a certain period.
Florida is home to about 10 percent of the nation's farm workforce. If this administration won't do anything to lift their standards, the next one should make it a priority.
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