Ag Industry Makes Same Old, Same Old Bogus Claim about Worker Shortage

Published on July 3rd, 2012

By Joe Guzzardi
May 31, 2012

‘Tis the season…and I’m not talking about Mother’s and Father’s Day, graduations, high school proms or summer vacations.

For as long as I can remember, every spring and through the summer harvest, the agriculture industry bemoans what it refers to as a worker shortage. Growers lament what they perceive as an insufficient number of workers and threaten consumers that unless assistance in the form of an immigration guest worker program is immediately forthcoming, crops will rot in the fields. Congressional members who represent major ag states fuel “shortage “ fires by advocating for guest workers; the mainstream media also does its part by publishing dozens of stories that quote the ag lobby’s doom and gloom predictions.

Readers can be forgiven if they have developed a healthy skepticism about shortage stories. After decades of “crops will rot” predictions, no significant crop shortages have developed. Five years ago, California Senator Dianne Feinstein blustered that an economic disaster would befall the state if her AgJobs amnesty didn’t pass. Feinstein’s bill died on the Senate floor but her alarmist forecast never happened. Most California growers enjoyed record crop yields. In April, scary reports from Georgia claimed that if anyone wanted a Vidalia onion, he should be prepared to pick his own.

Yet two weeks ago, a national supermarket chain in Ohio offered Vidalias as its weekly special for 59 cents per pound. Even including freight from Georgia, the Vidalia is a bargain. Whatever produce consumers want, one thing is clear—there’s plenty of it.

So, what gives? To be fair to the growers, their labor pool may be smaller in 2012 than it has been for years. Less Mexican migration, Capitol Hill debates about E-Verify and enforcement-oriented legislation in Arizona, Alabama and Georgia have made coming to the United States a much less attractive proposition for migrants than it was during boom years.

But that doesn’t excuse agriculture’s constant effort to get more cheap labor that illegal immigrants provide. Agriculture is a multi-billion dollar industry that has traditionally relied on immigrants. In his recent column Bob Stallman, American Farm Bureau Federation president, wrote that “for as long as he can remember” labor shortages have been a “significant challenge.” Stallman grew up on a Texas rice farm.

Assuming that growers have known for decades that they may have trouble recruiting workers, the question then becomes why are they unwilling to take advantage of the established Department of Labor’s H-2A visa program that allows unlimited numbers of foreign-born to come to the United States legally for seasonal employment?

Last year at a House Judiciary Subcommittee meeting chairman Lamar Smith said: “There is no numerical limit to H-2A temporary agricultural work visas. And yet, usage of the program has always been below expectations.”

The explanation is simple. For growers, it’s easier and cheaper to hire aliens—easier because the supply is high and cheaper because illegal employees have neither labor rights nor the leverage to fight back in cases of wage exploitation.

Hiring aliens works out well for the ag industry—but not so well for the rest of us. Few go home; some become a permanent part of society’s underclass. Once employers rely on foreign workers, they stop looking for alternatives like using the H-2A visa. As we’ve seen over the decades, the mindset is that without alien labor, agriculture will collapse.

While it’s true that some paperwork has to be completed to receive Labor Department certification for each H-2A visa, long term planning will assure growers that they’ll have all the workers they need year in and year out.


Joe Guzzardi is a Californians for Population Stabilization Senior Writing Fellow. His columns have been syndicated since 1986. Until recently, Guzzardi lived in the San Joaquin Valley. Contact him at [email protected].

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