Illegal farm work

Can U.S. farms thrive without undocumented immigrants?

By
September 9, 2011

In mid-August, the New York Times devoted its Room for Debate department to the question "Could Farms Survive Without Illegal Labor?" Here’s the Times summary of the matter:

American produce is underpriced, in part because farmers and growers rely on illegal immigrant workers, who are paid little and often have poor working conditions.
This reliance on immigrant workers has farmers lobbying against a bill that would require them to verify migrant workers’ status and employ only legal workers, saying such a mandate would cripple the industry.
If American growers are so dependent on illegal labor, would strict verification drive up prices for labor and, ultimately, produce? Are consumers too accustomed to inexpensive vegetables and fruit to accept the cost of legal labor to produce it?

The six debaters who hashed out the issue ran through several familiar arguments — Americans don’t want to work on farms, Americans aren’t willing to work for low pay in grueling conditions, Americans aren’t willing to pay more for their food — with some subtle twists.

Benjamin Shute, a small-scale farmer in New York, argued that the results of not hiring undocumented workers would be that “food prices would rise not because worker pay would improve, but rather because jobs would go unfilled, apples would go unpicked and food would be in short supply.”

Policy activist Lisa García Bedolla cited a Georgia experiment in which unemployed parolees, hired to replace undocumented workers, quit “within half an hour, citing intolerable working conditions.” She concluded that the debate should focus “on figuring out how the United States can finally have a food system that provides a living wage and a safe workplace to all the workers in the food production chain. That would be truly sustainable agriculture.”

Economist Philip Martin did some grocery math and declared that an increase in farmworker wages wouldn’t really affect the average American consumer:

For a typical household, a 40 percent increase in farm-labor costs translates into a 3.6 percent increase in retail prices. If farm wages rose 40 percent, and this wage increase were passed on to consumers, average spending on fresh fruits and vegetables would rise about $15 a year, the cost of two movie tickets. However, for a typical seasonal farm worker, a 40 percent wage increase could raise earnings from $10,000 for 1,000 hours of work to $14,000 — lifting the wage above the federal poverty line.

Check out the other three debaters (and the accompanying comments, too) to see where their opinions fall: immigration-reform activist Tamar Jacoby, economist Michael J. Roberts, and economist Karina Gallardo.

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