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NATION'S LARGEST SUGARCANE PRODUCER AND FARMWORKER ADVOCATES REACH 'LABOR PEACE' ACCORD ON H-2A FOREIGN WORKER PROGRAM

 NATION'S LARGEST SUGARCANE PRODUCER AND FARMWORKER ADVOCATES
 REACH 'LABOR PEACE' ACCORD ON H-2A FOREIGN WORKER PROGRAM
 WASHINGTON, Sept. 11 /PRNewswire/ -- -- In a move unprecedented in the history of the "H-2A" foreign worker program, three leading farmworker advocacy groups and the United States Sugar Corporation of Clewiston, Fla., announced today "labor peace" concerning the Company's sugarcane cutters. The advocates are the Farmworker Justice Fund, Florida Rural Legal Services and the Migrant Legal Action Program. The agreement includes, among other things, a significant wage increase, establishment of a labor dispute resolution procedure and provisions for new disclosures to workers.
 "This agreement has been in the works for some time," said Robert A. Williams, attorney for Florida Rural Legal Services. "During the past year, U.S. Sugar has made major reforms, including providing access to its farm labor housing so that Florida Rural Legal Services outreach workers could talk to the sugarcane cutters about their working conditions. Where problems have been found, the Company and Florida Rural Legal Services have worked together to resolve them without litigation. We believe any future problems can be solved in the same spirit of cooperation and understanding. These positive changes have caused us to reassess our longstanding opposition to the H-2A program in sugarcane. Based on what U.S. Sugar has done, we believe it is possible to have an H-2A program that treats workers fairly and with dignity. The management of the Company is to be commended for taking these steps which reaffirm U.S. Sugar's historical leadership in the industry."
 Michael Hancock, executive director of the Farmworker Justice Fund of Washington, D.C., said: "Farmworker advocates have struggled over two decades to bring justice to Florida's sugarcane cutters. We and U.S. Sugar have now reached compromise on the most difficult problem in the sugarcane industry: the "task rate" wage system. In ending the task rate system and raising wages, U.S. Sugar has taken a major step forward. Although certain issues remain under litigation, we are convinced that a positive working relationship with U.S. Sugar lies ahead of us and that workers will experience significant improvements in wages and working conditions. U.S. Sugar has demonstrated courageous leadership in making these decisions and has set a course for itself that promises fair and humane treatment for its sugarcane workers."
 The agreement was concluded after U.S. Sugar made a number of changes in the method for paying its cane cutters, including moving from a "task rate" payment system to a guaranteed rate per ton averaged by field and crew. These changes will increase the average pay that workers receive. Following agreement with the Company, the farmworker advocates told the U.S. House Education and Labor Committee and the U.S. Department of Labor that U.S. Sugar has made good faith efforts to correct problems with the H-2A program.
 The agreement comes after a decade of industry scrutiny by farmworker advocates, the media, the U.S. Department of Labor and interested members of Congress. Recently both the U.S. House Education and Labor Committee and the General Accounting Office issued reports critical of industry and foreign government practices. Most of the problems identified in those reports have been remedied by U.S. Sugar, which, even prior to the reports, had been working with the advocates on identifying and correcting problems. For example, U.S. Sugar and the advocates together have sought and obtained major improvements in the Caribbean governments' administration of its H-2A worker savings and health care programs and jointly continue to seek further modifications in these programs for the workers' benefit.
 The changes U.S. Sugar has made in the past year relating to its H-2A workers include:
 -- "Open Harvest," providing access to workers' living and working conditions by farmworker advocates and the media. With Open Harvest, the Company invited the media and advocacy groups to audit its treatment of workers and committed itself to resolving any problems that remain;
 -- As part of its policy of openness, the Company's top management hosted a tour of its facilities for the board of directors, attorney and paralegals of Florida Rural Legal Services;
 -- At the beginning of Open Harvest, the Company reviewed and, where appropriate, improved the menu of food prepared for cane cutters;
 -- The company installed electronic timekeeping for all H-2A workers, insuring that their hours of work would be accurately recorded;
 -- Over several years, the Company has developed extensive safety equipment and a safety training program for workers, resulting in a 40 percent decline in work related injuries last season;
 -- In the past 12 months, the Company has encouraged Caribbean governments to improve administration of the H-2A health care and saving programs for the workers. The Company has taken a number of steps to insure that participation in the programs is truly voluntary, that the workers understand that it is voluntary and that a worker will not be penalized by the Company or his home government for not participating. The Company has also required faster deposit of the Caribbean government administered savings program funds in interest bearing accounts in the workers' names. It has requested an opinion from the Department of Labor on whether the Caribbean government administered health insurance program complies with the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974;
 -- For the 1991-2 harvest season, the Company prepared a detailed, yet easy to understand, handbook for H-2A workers explaining their rights and all oTh/v9 aspects of the program to them;
 -- The Company also prepared a video to help H-2A workers understand their rights and other aspects of the program;
 -- The Company has spent over $2.2 million in the last two years refurbishing and improving worker housing;
 -- Beginning in the 1991-2 season, the Company began offering full tuition and transportation to night school classes for all cane cutters. The Company has offered partial tuition for 15 years;
 -- In the 1991-2 season, as part of its policy of openness and its commitment to find problems and fix them, the Company requested a top to bottom Department of Labor audit of the Company's H-2A program in Florida;
 -- The Company worked closely with the General Accounting Office in its investigation of the overall H-2A program in Florida;
 -- The Company resolved differences with Florida Rural Legal Services over the "lower island transportation" issue involving compensation of H-2A workers for travel from other Caribbean islands to Jamaica on their way to Florida;
 -- The Company and Florida Rural Legal Services have established a relationship of communications and trust, allowing issues to be resolved over the phone rather than in court. Recently, for example, a matter known as the "three-quarters guarantee" issue came up, was handled over the phone and workers ended up receiving checks;
 -- Also, recently the Company met with senior Department of Labor officials and proposed formation of a task force of Department representatives, Caribbean government representatives, farmworker advocates and Company representatives to resolve future problems.
 A critical feature of the "labor peace" agreement is institution of a formal dispute resolution process. A grievance procedure will be established and a mediator will be named to rule on grievances that cannot be worked out between the parties.
 "We want to establish solid working relationships with advocacy groups to avoid future controversy and litigation," said U.S. Sugar President J. Nelson Fairbanks. "We also want to save the H-2A program and jobs of hard-working cane cutters whose families depend on their earnings here at U.S. Sugar."
 As a result of questions raised about the treatment of workers and costly litigation, the future of the H-2A program has been in doubt in recent years. At the program's peak several years ago more than 11,000 cane cutters worked in Florida under the program. This year the number will be under 5,000 with approximately 2,100 at U.S. Sugar.
 Under the new system of payment, U.S. Sugar will guarantee its cane cutters $5.10 per net ton of sugarcane cut averaged by field and crew during the five month harvest season beginning in October. Based on the average workers' productivity of 1.35 tons per hour, the workers' earnings, including supplements, are expected to increase approximately 75 cents per hour. Last season, U.S. Sugar's cane cutters earned an average wage of $6.54 per hour. This year, under the new pay rate, the work force is expected to earn an average hourly rate of approximately $7.28 an hour. The new system also provides a one ton per hour minimum production standard.
 The new system will result in wages approximately $1.60 per hour above the federally mandated minimum wage for H-2A sugarcane workers in Florida of $5.68 per hour. Many sugarcane cutters will earn significantly more than the anticipated $7.28 hourly average because of higher productivity.
 The new method of payment has been made part of a so-called "clearance order" which has been submitted to the U.S. Department of Labor. Clearance orders describe pay and working conditions that a company plans to provide workers under the H-2A program and are required for obtaining permission to bring the workers into the U.S. Farmworker advocates urged the U.S. Department of Labor to approve U.S. Sugar's recently submitted 1992-93 clearance order.
 The new method will replace the task rate system, which had been criticized by farmworker advocacy groups. The advocacy groups contended that the task rate system depended too much on the subjective judgment of field supervisors and made verification of its fairness difficult. The old task rate system is the subject of several pending lawsuits regarding its use in the past. These will go forward. Both the company and the farmworker advocacy groups maintain their respective positions in these lawsuits. Embracing the new system of payment does not imply either a waiver of legal arguments by the farmworker advocates or of the defenses asserted by U.S. Sugar with respect to the old task rate system.
 "We will let the courts take care of the past," the parties to the agreement said jointly. "We will look to the future, which we believe holds great promise for both U.S. Sugar and its H-2A workers, thanks to this 'labor peace.'"
 -0- 9/11/92
 /CONTACT: Mike Hancock of Migrant Legal Action Program, 202-462-8192; or Robert Williams of Florida Rural Legal Services, 904-222-5945; or Robert Buker of United States Sugar Corporation, 813-983-8121/ CO: U.S. Sugar Corporation ST: Florida IN: SU:


JB -- FL003 -- 8386 09/11/92 10:26 EDT
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Date:Sep 11, 1992
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