Trump must nix Big Agriculture’s bid to use coronavirus to slash farm wages

As the country came to grips with the coronavirus pandemic, the Trump administration asked the working people of America to comply with containment measures. For some 20 million Americans, that came at the cost of their jobs.

But for some workers, Team Trump could add post-crisis misery to their current pains.

Over the weekend, NPR reported that Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue is pushing the White House for big changes to the Adverse Effect Wage Rate, or AEWR, “to reduce wage rates for foreign guest workers on American farms.” But that’s not the full story. These changes will affect the wages of many American citizens as well.

The AEWR is the minimum wage determined by the US Department of Labor that “must be offered and paid to US and guest workers by agricultural employers of nonimmigrant H-2A visa agricultural workers.” It is adjusted yearly and differs state by state, but the primary function of the AEWR is to prevent farmers using the H-2A program from paying US and guest workers wages below the established rates in the surrounding area.

The changes to the AEWR being considered by the administration would, therefore, allow employers to pay lower wages to US and guest workers alike.

The pandemic offers the pretense: Reducing wage rates is necessary to help farmers who employ US and guest workers during the crisis. But as recently as February, before the pandemic brought life to a screeching halt, the weekly agricultural newspaper Capital Press was reporting that an “agricultural labor bill may be introduced in the US Senate during March and could include relief for growers from escalating minimum wages for H-2A-visa agricultural foreign guest workers.” That bill would have put the AEWR in its crosshairs.

The Big Ag lobby and its allies in the administration are only too happy to use the pandemic as an excuse for what they had already planned to do anyway. The consequences will negatively affect more than just those who work in the fields. The proposed changes to the AEWR would hurt the wages of construction workers, machine operators, truck drivers, farm managers. Ninety-three percent of all farm managers are native-born Americans. So are 83 percent of truck drivers, 80 percent of industrial truck and tractor operators, 68 percent of all first-line supervisors in farming and 49 percent of miscellaneous agricultural workers.

It is unacceptable to compel millions of Americans out of work in the name of public safety, only to kneecap their wages while they shelter in place. It falls on President Trump to put workers before the profits of a cheap-labor obsessed industry and avoid a cure far worse than the disease in the long run.

Pedro L. Gonzalez is assistant editor of American Greatness.

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