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Migrant labor a hot topic
Proposed legislation changes discussed at local meeting
Onion field Web
In this Herald file photo from 2006, a migrant worker is shown picking onions in a Bulloch County field. Area farmers are concerned Georgia immigration laws will continue to make migrant labor hard to come by for spring and summer crops.

    Migrant labor was a major topic Wednesday during the 2012 Georgia Ag Forecast program at Georgia Southern University’s Nessmith Lane Building.
    Agribusiness lawyer Nowell Berreth was keynote speaker for the event and discussed the H-2A program that is “part of the Immigration and Control Act of 1986 that allows supplementing local labor with migrant workers on a temporary seasonal basis,” he said.
    As it stands, immigrants can stay in the country for 20 months before having to return to their home country, and 33 producers use the program, employing 7,000 workers, he said.
    Migrant workers are needed because “there are not enough United States workers willing and able to do the work.” Many farm jobs are turned down by Americans who will not perform the physical labor for what farmers can pay, he said.
    But, the United States Department of Labor sets standard pay rates for migrant workers that must be followed so as “not to affect the pay rate of local workers and reduce the wages,” he said. “Migrants are to get hourly wages in line with what an U.S. worker would require for the same job.”
    Berreth discusses requirements of farmers that involve much paperwork, providing migrant workers transportation to and from their temporary homes and the job sites, providing housing and meals. Legislation is being proposed to make changes in these requirements, which make it difficult for farmers to use migrant labor, he said.
    Applications for the H-2A program can now be pursued online, and must be submitted 60 days before migrant workers are needed, he said.
    Farmers recruit workers through the state departments of labor as well as through newspaper ads and by hiring former employees, but farmers are required to hire US workers first. And, any applicant for a job that is open must be hired regardless of experience — points that some legislators wish to change, he said.
    Problems with the current program include immigrants having only 10 months to work (before having to return home) and therefore being unable to hire on with farms needing longer, non-seasonal employees. The paperwork is “cumbersome,” and some feel wage rates should be more job specific, he said.
    Sen. Saxby Chambliss has introduced the Harvest Act, which proposes the immigrant labor be removed from Department of Labor control and given to the Department of Agriculture. It would also eliminate the requirement for farmers to provide housing, and would require mediation before litigation issues.
    Congressman Jack Kingston has introduced the Barn Act, a similar act that would also support moving control to the Department of Agriculture, would consider worker experience and set wages to 115 percent of minimum wage. It would also shorten application times, Berreth said.
    The Barn Act also would create a one-year Visa, on a one-time basis. Both acts would allow dairies to participate in the program, he said.
    Berreth was followed by Dr. George Shumaker, University of Georgia professor emeritus, Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development, who gave a summary of the Georgia 2012 Agricultural and Agribusiness outlook. While some crops are expected to bring higher prices, costs of farming also will rise and an expected drought has some concerned.
    Jon Huffmaster, Georgia Farm Bureau legislative director, spoke briefly about the Farm Bill, stating it has a 50/50 chance of being passed this year, due to past history of being pushed back and that this year is an election year, he said.
    A networking luncheon followed the program. The event was sponsored by Georgia Farm Bureau, the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service and the Georgia Department of Agriculture.
    Holli Deal Bragg maybe reached at 912- 489-9414.

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