Saturday, December 05, 2015

What really improves the economic condition of immigrant farmworkers

There are few roles in the U.S. food system as tough as being an immigrant farmworker ... especially one without documentation. There has been enormous advocacy in recent years to improve farmworker wages and working conditions.

Yet, in addition to advocacy, it is worthwhile to stay informed about the economic fundamentals that even more strongly influence working conditions for immigrant laborers.

Consider the consequences of several recent years of economic recovery (which increases job opportunities outside of agriculture), combined with the failure of sensible immigration reforms (which would have included a compromise with farmers, designed to stabilize their labor supply).

Economic growth and (perhaps pardoxically) nativist conservative grass-roots opposition to immigration reform have combined to raise wages for immigrant farmworkers.

University of Florida researchers -- Zhengfei Guan, Feng Wu, Fritz Roka, and Alicia Whidden -- this week write about labor conditions for strawberries and other specialty crops in Choices Magazine:
Specialty crop growers generally depend on a large number of farm workers to grow, harvest, and pack their tender fresh crops. Consequently, growers are sensitive to both the cost and availability of farm labor. Working conditions in agriculture are often physically challenging and hourly earnings are relatively low compared to other employment opportunities for U.S. residents. Thus, a large portion of agricultural labor needs have been met by immigrant workers. A high percentage of these immigrants are working in the United States without legal authorization. In recent years grower concerns over cost and availability have intensified as the rhetoric over comprehensive immigration reform continues to harden.
Figure 1: Annual Average Number of Hired Workers in U.S. Agriculture (Excluding Service Workers) and Average Wage Rates

Source: USDA/NASS, 2014


Anonymous said...

One thing that irrevocably improves the economic condition of farmworkers is farm mechanization.

Now before you go all shrill over this harsh reality, hear me out. Whenever farm work is successfully mechanized farm labor is favorably impacted overall. Labor saving devices mean we need far fewer unskilled laborers toiling away at low value grunt work. That frees these pitied workers to pursue other less strenuous, more satisfying, more lucrative opportunities in more glamorous industries somewhere else. This is equally important for immigrant labor and domestic sources such as family labor and so-called "volunteer" or "internship" labor. Remaining farm jobs become semi-skilled positions affording corresponding rewards. Semi-skilled farm job situations are far and away more interesting, more responsible and more remunerative than any stoop laborer's dull existence. Some crops can't be mechanized with our current state of technology, of course, but advance toward eventual mechanization is the most promising approach to permanently addressing the plight of unskilled farm labor. That's where our scarce resources should be directed instead of legislating arbitrary interventions in wages and working conditions from one political administration to the next.

If you doubt this, read up on your ag history. A century or two ago our farms were operated with predominantly unpaid family labor. As agriculture has been modernized many waves of unappreciated workers have been released from the drudgery of farms. Nearly all of the early wave were unpaid family farm workers who went on to independently establish themselves and their families in improved circumstances outside of agriculture (your immediate ancestors probably performed this invaluable service for the benefit of you and your heirs -- a statistical likelihood given farmers have dwindled from some 90% of the American population before the peak of the industrial revolution to some 1% today).

The only way to break the vicious cycle of unskilled labor and grinding poverty is to simply break the damned cycle. The only sure way to eliminate unsatisfactory farmworker experiences is to eliminate those potentially unsatisfying farm jobs. Anything else is kicking the can down the road in the face of unstable farm commodity values destabilizing piecework wages and inevitable cost of living inflation constantly placing ever greater demands on all families, including farmworkers' families.

The consistent "plight" of farm workers throughout history, today, tomorrow and beyond should send up red warning flags signalling the impertinence of imagining agriculture has ever been truly "sustainable" or that it ever will be. Too many dreamy reminiscences transform the harsh realities endured by early farm workers into some sort of Utopian fairy tale existence. Those unpaid family farm laborers and unskilled hired workers have usually been relieved to get off the farms and venture into new fields of employment. What do you suppose you would be your complaints about agriculture today if your ancestors hadn't broken the cycle and rescued you from a life of menial farm labor?

usfoodpolicy said...

It is true. My grandfather escaped from the former Soviet Union in the 1920s to work in Canada as a farm hand on the Alberta prairies, and then as an older student acquired a college education and became a preacher. The broad shift from farm labor to nonfarm labor is a 20th Century success.

Looking forward to further mechanization, there are some complications:
(a) mechanization is more advantageous to a society with full employment, and a mixed bag for a society with unemployment and underemployment.
(b) mechanization was a clearer win in the 20th century, when farm labor was a large fraction of the workforce, and less clear now when farm labor is a small fraction of the workforce.
(c) the key economic and environmental challenge now is sustainable high productivity per unit land (which may fruitfully include increased labor) rather than high productivity per unit labor (which can be acquired through mechanization).