Monday, January 28, 2013

Mexican farm labor markets tighten up, with possible implications for U.S. farmers and farm workers

The agricultural labor supply in Mexico may be shrinking, a development that is likely to raise wages for farm laborers in both Mexico and the United States.

If this is truly a long-term trend, rather than a short-term response to economic recession or disruption because of recent violence, then it would have several implications.  It could cause some difficulties for U.S. farm owners, and it could somewhat hinder efforts to encourage increased consumption of fruits and vegetables at low prices.  On the positive side, it could help smooth U.S. immigration policy debates, and it would help alleviate hardship for the immigrant workers who play such a central role in the American food system.

An article in the most recent issue of Applied Economics Perspectives and Policy (may be gated), by J. Edward Taylor, Diane Charlton, and Antonio YĂșnez-Naude, is titled "The End of Farm Labor Abundance."  Here is the abstract:
An analysis of nationally representative panel data from rural Mexico, with observations in years 2002, 2007, and 2010, suggests that the same shift out of farm work that characterized U.S. labor history is well underway in Mexico. Meanwhile, the demand for agricultural labor in Mexico is rising. In the future, U.S. agriculture will compete with Mexican farms for a dwindling supply of farm labor. Since U.S. domestic workers are unwilling to do farm work and the United States can feasibly import farm workers from only a few countries in close geographic proximity, the agricultural industry will eventually need to adjust production to use less labor. The decline in foreign labor supply to farms in the United States ultimately will need to be accompanied by farm labor conservation, switching to less labor intensive crops and technologies, and labor management practices that match fewer workers with more farm jobs. 
This article may be thought-provoking for readers who participate in U.S.-based sustainable food movements.

For one thing, these movements have been trying to come to grips with labor issues, recognizing that even locally oriented and organic food production in the United States makes heavy use of low-wage farm workers.  It is good that these movements have been giving greater attention to worker advocates, including the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and others, but this attention has to be accompanied by a fearless and honest analysis of the basics of labor supply and labor demand, which are more fundamental determinants of both wages and working conditions.

For another thing -- and here I am generalizing a bit -- many of the thinkers and writers in this movement whose work I generally respect highly are nonetheless trade skeptics to a degree that makes me nervous.  It is sensible to expect high standards from trade policy without straying quite so close to a nativist pessimism in which low-income trading partners are seen as bottomless pits of economic distress.  The reason I am more optimistic than many of my friends about international trade is that I have not yet given up on the prospects for economic advancement that reaches even low-wage labor markets in the countries we trade with -- starting, for example, with Mexico.

No comments: