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America’s Agricultural Workforce: Theory vs. Reality

September 27, 2010 - Posted by Maurice Belanger


farm worker


Last week, the House Immigration Subcommittee held a hearing, “Protecting America’s Harvest.”  The focus of the hearing was the agricultural workforce,

The debate was largely between theory and reality.

Republicans represented the theoretical view that, as Lamar Smith from Texas put it, “for every illegal immigrant removed, an opportunity is created for an American to be employed.”  In this view, all that is needed is for immigration laws to be enforced.  Then, all unemployed Americans would have jobs, farmers would have workers, and everyone would live happily ever after.

Pitted against this view was the reality that, despite various efforts to recruit them, not enough Americans are willing to do agricultural work, and so American agriculture has become dependent on foreign labor, largely undocumented.  This view was represented by Arturo Rodriguez, of United Farm Workers and the “Take Our Jobs” campaign.  The campaign is really an effort to call the bluff of those who hold the theoretical view.  In more than three months of effort, that project has placed seven American workers who have stayed with their farm jobs.

Take Our Jobs is only the most recent experiment to test the theory that enough Americans can be recruited to fill out our agricultural workforce.  In the late 1990’s, after Congress passed welfare reform, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) insisted on establishment of a program to try to place persons receiving welfare into farm jobs in California.  Despite high unemployment, fewer than five workers were successfully placed.  (It was this experiment that made Senator Feinstein a supporter of the Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits, and Security Act (AgJOBS).)

Another recurring theme of the hearing: there would be plenty of Americans doing farm work if only the pay and working conditions were better.

Phil Glaize, a witness who owns an apple orchard and who represented grower advocates for AgJOBS, noted that he pays his workers more than they can make “flipping burgers,” and still he must rely on foreign workers.  Congresswomen Judy Chu (D-CA) noted that there are plenty of Americans employed in jobs paying lower wages, yet they aren’t deterred from those jobs.

The star of the hearing was Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert, who testified of his experience working on a farm in upstate New York for a day.  He (along with Phil Glaize) warned us of the consequences we will face if we believe too much in the theory and don’t pay attention to the reality:  “I’m a big believer in the free market,” he said,

“but the invisible hand of the market has moved 84,000 acres of crops to Mexico.  Apparently the invisible hand of the market doesn’t want to pick beans either.”

Something good may come out of this hearing.  Several of the Republican members spoke of the poor wages and working conditions of agricultural workers.  Picking up on that theme, Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), who chairs the subcommittee, concluded the hearing by saying that she might introduce a bill that would strengthen legal protections for farmworkers—making sure they have the right to organize, that they can obtain unemployment compensation, and that they receive at least the minimum wage.  She said that she hoped that her Republican colleagues, who “spoke so passionately” about the poor conditions farmworkers must endure, would join her in the endeavor.

Image by Flickr user beckcowles.


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