The Agriculture Industry: Addicted to Cheap Labor

Published on December 7th, 2011

By Joe Guzzardi
October 7, 2011

Over the decades, West Coast growers have grown addicted to cheap farm labor. No word other than “addicted” adequately describes their perceived dependence on illegal alien workers.

For years, the agriculture industry has been able to tap into a special visa for seasonal workers, the H-2A which has no cap. Run by the Department of Labor, the H-2A has been used successfully by North Carolina growers. In fact, according to the North Carolina Growers Association, “NCGA is able to provide a viable solution to the perpetual labor shortage faced by today’s farmers. NCGA members are provided with a workforce that is legal, reliable, and ready to ensure that your crops are planted, maintained, and harvested in a timely fashion.”

Still the constant whining from the West about an ag worker shortage continues. According to industry spokesmen, the H-2A is too cumbersome to deal with. Translated, that means it’s much easier to hire illegal aliens who will work for small money. The H-2A requires that salaries be consistent with what a native-born worker would earn.

Even though the mandatory E-Verify bill known as the Legal Workforce Act the House Judiciary Committee passed gives the ag industry three years to comply, growers claim that’s not enough.

Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith, the bill’s original sponsor, met heavy resistance from growers and their lobby. Said U.S. Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Calif., “I was an original co-sponsor of E-Verify but we have to have contemporaneous action on an agricultural guest-worker bill."

Smith complied by sponsoring the American Specialty Agriculture Act, H.R. 2847, that would create a new H-2C visa. Among its other advantages, the H-2C does not require the qualifying work to be of a temporary or seasonal nature. This will allow dairies and other non-seasonal agricultural employers to participate. Nevertheless, California farmers denounced Smith’s proposal as inadequate.

For decades, California’s farm industry has threatened that crops would rot in the field without an ags job amnesty. During the 25-years I lived in the San Joaquin Valley no amnesty was passed and no crops ever rotted. In fact, many of those years produced record yields. University of California Davis professor Philip Martin Davis offers evidence that no labor shortage exists. In his paper titled “Farm Labor Shortages: How Real? What Response?” Dr. Martin noted that noted that a labor shortage would be evident in three ways: (1) lack of productivity, (2) wage increases (law of supply and demand), and (3) rising costs to consumers.

Dr. Martin found that production is up, household expenditures on fruits and vegetables remains constant and most importantly, over a recent five year period, real wages for farm workers increased one-half of one percent (.5 percent) annually on average between 2000 and 2006. If there were a shortage, wages would be rising much more rapidly.

Society cannot prosper as long as it depends on foreign labor. During the last 50 years, growers have conditioned Americans to think that working in agriculture is too hard, too dirty or too unpleasant for citizens to perform even though in the 1950s Americans commonly did such jobs. Through a vigorous public relations campaign now decades old, the agriculture industry has demeaned these essential jobs and discouraged Americans from taking them.

Don’t blame Congress. The shame lies with the industry that has systematically discouraged Americans from doing agricultural labor.


Joe Guzzardi has written editorial columns, mostly about immigration and related social issues, since 1986. He is a Senior Writing Fellow for Californians for Population Stabilization (CAPS) and his columns are syndicated in various U.S. newspapers and websites. Contact him at [email protected]

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