The agribusiness lobby holds great sway over our federal government, and agricultural producers who rely on a low-wage, often illegal, foreign labor force are a large part of the reason the U.S. immigration system is “broken.” Their resistance to any effective immigration enforcement, unless they are allowed a guest worker program that amounts to indentured servitude, has prevented the establishment of an immigration system that operates in the national interest.
Big Ag has long contended that the American people are facing stark choices when it comes to our food supply. Either we accept the ongoing exploitation of foreign workers, suffer exorbitant increases in produce prices, or see food production go overseas. Significantly raising wages to attract domestic workers, or increasing mechanization have been dismissed as unviable.
There are some jobs no one wants to do, if given a better alternative.
It is true most Americans are unwilling to work as hired field hands for low-pay and no benefits. So, too, are most immigrants. That’s why the growers and producers who hire a large number of illegal alien workers depend on a steady supply of new workers coming into the United States. Heightened border security and interior enforcement has led agricultural employers to increasingly turn to the unlimited H-2A guest worker program, but H-2A workers still only account for 10 percent of seasonal agricultural workers, and that's even double what it was five years ago. Agricultural employers complain about the H-2A program, but instead of working with the federal government to improve it, they are lobbying for a new guest worker program that will, despite the claim there is an existing worker shortage, establish wage levels far below existing prevailing rates. Democrats oppose such a program, precisely because it would undercut Americans workers. If only they would not turn a blind eye to all the other sectors of the labor market where the very same thing is occurring.
Working long hours in the fields for little pay has never appealed to anyone. When the United States become the world’s leading industrial power in the 1940s, millions of Americans made the choice to move to urban areas in search of secure, well-paying jobs in factories. It was also during the 1940s, starting with the Bracero Program, that large commercial growers grew reliant on low-wage labor from Latin America.
Over the ensuing 75 years, highly profitable agribusiness firms made the choice not to invest in better pay for their workers, or to mechanize the harvesting process for certain crops, because it was more profitable, at least in the short term, to pay below-poverty wages to a workforce increasingly comprised of illegal aliens. The money instead was spent on packaging, transportation, marketing, government lobbying, and salaries for agribusiness executives. The federal government aided and abetted this behavior.
Growers can pay more to their workers. They choose not to. In 2011, I coauthored a research report which found that the agricultural industry was the most profitable sector of the U.S. economy and could well afford to pay its hourly workers 20-30 percent more, while still remaining highly profitable. Our work built on that of Philip Martin, a recognized expert on farm labor and migration issues, who had earlier established that labor costs factor little into the retail cost of produce. In 2006, Martin found that only 5 to 6 cents of every dollar spent on produce is due to labor costs. If workers received a 40 percent increase in pay, that would represent 7 to 9 cents on every dollar spent, and would work out to about a $9.00 a year increase in food expenditures for the average household.
Growers can also turn to mechanization. There are countless examples of harvesting technology already in existence and in use picking crops that growers claim must be picked by hand by foreign workers. Americans can debate whether we want peaches picked by a machine and cows milked by robots, but we can’t pretend that it isn’t an option readily available to agricultural producers.
It is true that mechanization involves an upfront capital investment. Those producers who employ large number of foreign crop laborers, and who lobby Congress to allow them to continue that practice, are the very ones who can afford the investment. These are commercial factory farms, not small family farms. On average, small family farms hire few seasonal workers, and depend on off-farm income to support their farming. There has been growth in the small farm sector over the past decade, but food production still overwhelmingly comes from factory farms.
Given the available technology and Big Ag's ability to afford it, there is no excuse for the status quo.
Agribusiness operators may be beginning to realize they are losing the advantageous position they have held for so long, and it goes far beyond the election of President Trump. Fewer workers are coming from Mexico and Central America. There are several factors that account for this, such as Mexico’s agricultural sector finally recovering from the effects of NAFTA. Better opportunities now exist there for workers; better opportunities than offered by U.S. growers, who have made it clear they will not offer reasonable wages as an incentive to attract workers. And illegal aliens have long eschewed farm work in favor of better jobs in construction, restaurants, landscaping, anywhere other than in the fields.
No matter the arguments put forth by Big Ag, the stubborn truth is that working long hours in the fields for little pay has never appealed to anyone. Not to Americans, not to immigrants, and not to illegal aliens. Given a better alternative, workers will go elsewhere.
In the absence of an exploitable workforce, there are indications that automation is on the horizon. The Los Angeles Times discussed the shift in a June story, and Reuters recently detailed what it presented as a growing trend.
A 2014 report by WinterGreen Research forecast significant growth in the use of robotics in “every aspect of farming, milking, food production” and other agricultural enterprises. The report put the market for agricultural robots at $817 million in 2013 and projected that it would reach $16.3 billion by 2020.
Sensing opportunity, investors are stepping up to address agriculture’s labor squeeze with new automation, helped by falling electronics costs and advancements in software, robotics and artificial intelligence.
There is a very important reckoning the American people have to have on the subject of automation and its effects on the labor market. One thing is certain: the continued importation of low-wage labor from abroad is only going to amplify the disruption caused by automation, in factories, in fast food restaurants, and in the fields. Congress must no longer acquiesce to the demands from Big Ag for an endless supply of labor from abroad.
The election of Donald Trump is a strong signal that the American people are fed up with so much of what has been going on for so many years on the immigration front. But the aversion to how agribusiness operates crosses partisan and ideological lines. It is not so much that Americans are angry at those who come illegally into the United States to pick crops as they are angry at those who exploit them.
And as a bonus, here some Phil Ochs.
ERIC RUARK is the Director of Research for NumbersUSA
Updated: Thu, Nov 30th 2017 @ 6:15pm EST