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Saturday, January 19 , 2019, 11:03 pm | Fair 53º


Joe Guzzardi: Agriculture Industry’s Last Gasp to Promote Cheap, Stoop Labor

The agriculture industry’s decades-old myth, which it has so fervently promoted, is that without cheap stoop labor, crops will “rot in the field.”

Since the failed bracero program ended more than 50 years ago, the ag lobby has insisted that its salvation lay in temporary guest worker legislation that would import an unending stream of field hands.

Ten years ago, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who knows better, said during her push for guest worker legislation that California faced “an emergency” if illegal immigrants couldn’t be found “to prune, to plant, to pick, to pack.” But the fable may finally have run its course.

The summer of 2017 is ending, and once again consumers have had the usual wide variety of fruits and vegetables to choose from. Farmers’ markets from coast-to-coast teem with product.

And this abundance despite President Donald Trump’s vow to enforce immigration laws: fewer migrants are coming north, and some of those already here are self-deporting. Yet growers have survived the predicted, but nonexistent labor crunch.

The Los Angeles Times broke a story last month that chronicled ag-tech’s progress in California’s $47 billion farming industry. Driscoll’s, a family-owned, privately held company headquartered in Watsonville and the world’s leading berry grower, is moving its crops to table-top troughs, which makes picking easier for man and machine. The transition began a decade ago in Australia and Europe, but has been slow to catch on in the United States, mainly because of stoop labor’s ready availability.

Two experts, Philip Martin, chairman of the Comparative Immigration & Integration Program at UC Davis, and Michael Teitelbaum, an Oxford University scholar and Harvard Law School senior Labor and Worklife Program researcher, have written extensively about the flawed concepts behind guest labor. Namely, workers often don’t go home, and eventually their families join then or they start new families stateside, and create a continuously growing welfare-dependent class.

Moreover, with cheap labor easily available, growers had little incentive to pursue alternatives like automation.

Even if growers lack the capital to invest in mechanization, some have shifted to more employee-friendly policies, like providing health care, giving bonuses and improving working conditions — hydraulic lifts that replace ladders, and conveyor belts that eliminate carrying crates.

Despite years of scare stories about an imminent ag crisis, the H-2A visa has long been available to growers that would allow them to bring in an unlimited number of foreign-born ag workers. Repeat for emphasis: unlimited, no cap.

Since the Labor Department authorizes H -2A visas, the process involves paperwork that employers claim is too cumbersome, a weak attempt to defend continued reliance on illegal immigrant pickers.

As for the companion to the “rotting” argument that paying higher wages to willing Americans or legal immigrant field hands translates into higher consumer costs, that, too, has been repeatedly debunked. A new Iowa State University study concluded that entirely eliminating the illegal workforce would raise farm wages substantially — by 30 percent in the short term and 15 percent in the long term — but would have little effect on consumer cost increases, a 6 percent boost in the near term and a 3 percent hike in the long term.

If asked to choose between paying pennies more for a pound of cherries and subsidizing illegal immigration so that the ag industry could reap greater profits, consumers would be near-unanimous — either pay Americans more or join the 21st century and mechanize.

The historic, tried and true solution to filling labor shortages is to pay more, not hire illegal immigrants or issue more visas.

— Joe Guzzardi is a senior writing fellow for Californians for Population Stabilization (CAPS) who now lives in Pittsburgh. He can be reached at [email protected], or follow him on Twitter: @joeguzzardi19. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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