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for people who care about the West

Guest farmworkers get a new deal


Foreign workers in the West’s fields and orchards have a new bodyguard: the United Farm Workers of America.

Last month, the union signed a contract with Global Horizons, a California-based company that’s one of the country’s largest suppliers of foreign agricultural labor. At peak harvest, the company employs more than 4,000 workers in 28 states, including eight in the West. The contract — a first for guest workers — guarantees medical care, work breaks, bereavement leave, and the right to air grievances.

It’s the surprising outcome of a three-year fight, during which the union hounded Global Horizons to provide better wages and working conditions. Last year, the state of Washington fined the company and revoked its operating license for, among other things, failing to prove that local workers weren’t available before importing workers from Thailand (HCN, 9/19/05: In the orchards, questions about immigration reform).

The contract resolved those issues, and Global Horizons hopes that Washington’s Department of Labor and Industries will reinstate its license, says Mordechai Orian, company president. State officials did not return calls for this story.

Erik Nicholson, the UFW’s Pacific Northwest director, says the contract could be a model for pacts with other foreign-labor contractors. In the past, the union has opposed the increased use of guest workers to fill agricultural jobs. But now that Congress plans to expand the guest-worker program, the union is opening its doors. Says Nicholson: "Guest workers are here, so we need to make sure that their rights are protected just as much as domestic workers."