Jeremy Beck's picture


  by  Jeremy Beck

The editorial board of the Greeley Tribune likes their food cheap. So do most Americans, they argue. That's the thrust of their argument for a proposal to allow states like Colorado to essentially create their own guest worker programs (the "serfdom solution," as Peter Spiliakos calls it) in order to keep food prices down:

"As we've been reporting, there is a labor shortage in Colorado, especially in some food-processing or production jobs that offer little pay for long days of hard work. We like our cheap food, but there's not many native-born American citizens who are willing to work to help produce it."

Working conditions in the food-processing industry range from grueling to criminal. Journalist Michael Grabell describes the conditions in a pair of stories for the New Yorker and ProPublica:

"In 2015, meat, poultry, and fish cutters, repeating similar motions more than fifteen thousand times a day, experienced carpal-tunnel syndrome at nearly twenty times the rate of workers in other industries. The combination of speed, sharp blades, and close quarters is dangerous: since 2010, more than seven hundred and fifty processing workers have suffered amputations. Case Farms says it allows bathroom breaks at reasonable intervals, but workers in North Carolina told me that they must wait so long that some of them wear diapers."

The fact is: Americans will do these jobs. Americans make up the majority of the workforce in every U.S. industry, according to Pew Research. Americans make up two-thirds of meat processors, according to CIS. The Greeley Tribune itself reported that after a workplace raid towards the end of the G.W. Bush administration, a Colorado meatpacking plant saw a "steady line of job seekers at times backed up to the entrance doors."

The editors at the Greeley Tribune may not personally know any Americans who will work in Colorado processing plants, but they can't deny their existence. Nevertheless, the food processing industry has a history of seeking out desperate workers who will accept lower wages and deplorable conditions. They are afraid, they say, that the Trump administration will make it harder for them to find enough foreign workers to take these the wages they are offering.

If these businesses took the radical step of raising wages, the Greeley Tribune warns, our cheap food would be... less cheap.

This raises a few questions:

(1) What role should government play in subsidizing industries that have high turnover rates due to low pay and dangerous working conditions?

(2) What are the ethical considerations of seeking a foreign-born workforce for salaries and conditions that don't measure up to American standards?

(3) How cheap does food have to be to justify the poverty wages and limb-threatening working conditions of these jobs?

"We like our cheap food" strikes me as an inadequate answer, one that calls to mind something T.A. Frank (then with the New Republic) said during the last attempt to double the size of foreign guest worker programs:

"...we increasingly live in bubbles, many of us are at best only abstractly aware of how cruelly circumstances of unskilled Americans have deteriorated over the past few decades. Even as these Americans have lost their well-paid manufacturing jobs, Washington has looked the other way while millions of low-skilled unauthorized immigrants have competed with them for low-skilled service jobs. The insouciance of privileged Americans toward the effects of this on life among less-privileged Americans is, in my view, a betrayal of citizenship."

JEREMY BECK is the Director of the Media Standards Project for NumbersUSA

Unnecessary Worker Visas
Vulnerable Americans

Updated: Tue, Jul 4th 2017 @ 4:00pm EDT

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