US farm work programme faces jeopardy

(Jamaica Observer) The 68-year-old US overseas employment programme, through which hundreds of thousands of Jamaicans have gained work on American farms and in US hotels, could grind to a screeching halt because of a new US regulation which is starving the programme administrators of much-needed funds.

That regulation is the result of the US Department of Homeland Security’s published rules in December 2008 that, in effect, prevent US employers from collecting any job placement fee or other compensation from anyone who gets a job in the US as a temporary migrant worker via what is known as an H-2A petition.

This new rule applies to any agent, recruiter or similar employment service involved in making arrangements for this type of employment.

In other words, it prevents US employers deducting the traditional four/five per cent administrative fee from their Caribbean workers’ wages on behalf of the Washington, DC-based Liaison Services Office, thus starving that welfare organisation of desperately needed funds.

According to a Liaison Services Office memorandum received by the Observer, “The action of the USCIS (United States Citizenship and Immigration Service) has left the organisation completely without funding since August 2010.”

President of the National Workers Union (NWU), Vincent Morrison says if nothing is done, and soon, that body will be forced to close its doors and send home its 40-plus employees, leaving the farm and hotel workers it represents from Jamaica and the rest of the region on their own in a foreign land.

“If the decision is not taken to restore the five per cent voluntary contribution by the workers, if that is not done, then the Liaison Services will have to close, because the regional governments, at this time, have made it very clear that they don’t have the money to support this service,” said Morrison. “What that will mean is that the Jamaican workers will probably continue to go up to the States, but without any form of protection.”

The Liaison Services, which falls under the Jamaica Central Labour Organisation (JCLO), has been trying in vain, thus far, to petition the US officials to allow it special consideration, given how long and how successfully it has run its work programmes.

On March 2, according to documents obtained by the Observer, the JCLO formally wrote to the US Government, denying allegations that it was a recruiter or employment agency for the H-2A workers. Instead, the organisation emphasised that it is more like a Regional Labour Board, comprised of numerous sovereign Caribbean governments, who only seek to protect the health and welfare of their citizens who are employed in the US.

The JCLO also formally denied that Caribbean workers pay any recruitment or placement fee to it or any participating Caribbean Government.

According to Morrison, the controversial administrative fee in fact helps the Liaison Service provide a wide range of services and protections including medical insurance, NIS deductions, workers’ compensation in case of injury, ensuring that employers don’t mistreat workers, inspection and approval of worker housing, resolving work or domestic problems, maintaining workers’ records, ensuring workers save some of their earnings and looking after their families back home in emergency situations. The organisation also provides welcome services to workers once they land in the US, among other critical services.

However, while its petition for special considerations is shifted from desk to desk in Washington diplomatic circles, the JCLO has refrained from collecting its administrative fee during the spring and summer of 2010 as required. As a result, it is reeling from the effects of the drop in funding, especially since it has continued to provide social welfare services to Caribbean nationals as it has always done. However, the organisation’s ledgers show that money for this is running out.

Morrison added that the US employers, who rely on the annual influx of Jamaican migrant workers for their crop seasons are also dismayed that the programme is on the verge of collapse.

“The growers themselves are upset. I know that there are growers who have been talking to their Congressmen, in an effort to have this matter sorted out,” Morrison said.

He said he was also dismayed that the US Government was pushing an issue that could have such a detrimental effect on regional peoples, especially given the geo-political sensitivities of the recent invasion of the Asian countries in Caribbean economies.

“China is trying to push its geopolitical influence, (why not) the great United States, that we have been a friend for the longest while in every way, we have supported them in every forum, even in the United Nations?” Morrison asked.

“We have supported them in every way, and what they are saying to us is that a programme that started in 1943 and has been vastly beneficial to not only Jamaica and Jamaican workers who have gone to the United States, but to US employers… is a problem,” said Morrison.

He contended that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade has been slow out of the starting blocks in engaging the US diplomatically on the whole issue, despite meetings arranged with US Labour Secretary Hilda Solis by Jamaica’s ambassador to Washington Audrey Marks.

He also said that if the Jamaican Government could establish a similar government-to-government arrangement as exists in the Canadian overseas employment programme, it would make a big difference to how the JCLO is perceived.