- - Monday, August 17, 2015

Some people who advocate for tighter controls on immigration say that the measures are necessary in order to protect jobs for American citizens. However, it is not always the case that Americans want those jobs—no matter the wage. But what does that say about our national work ethic?

The Wall Street Journal reported last week that “even at $17 an hour, farms can’t fill jobs.” The article refers mostly to agricultural industry, but other industries report similar problems

Ilan Brat of the WSJ tells the story of one particular farm in the state of Washington, as far from the Mexican border as possible, but still greatly affected by tougher immigration laws:

Last year, about a quarter of Biringer Farm’s strawberries and raspberries rotted in the field because it couldn’t find enough workers. Samantha Bond was determined not to let that happen again. 

Early this year, Ms. Bond, human resources manager for the 35-acre farm in Arlington, Wash., offered 20% raises to the most productive workers from the last harvest. She posted help-wanted ads on Craigslist, beside highways and on the bathroom-stall door at a church. She also successfully lobbied local high schools to broadcast her call for workers during morning announcements.

Despite Ms. Bond’s efforts, Biringer again faced a worker shortage and typically drew fewer than 60 of the roughly 100 employees it needed on harvest days. “There was definitely hair-pulling going on,” she said.

How much money does all that rotten fruit add up to (and then, increase the price of the fruit we buy in the market)?

Overall in the U.S., the decline in workers is reducing fruit and vegetable production by 9.5%, or $3.1 billion, a year, according to a recently published analysis of government data by the Partnership for a New American Economy, a nonpartisan group that supports a looser immigration policy.

Look, I know few young people who wake up in the morning have dreamed visions of making a career out of picking strawberries, plucking chickens, or laying brick.

The article mentions that housing in these zip codes is often too expensive to accommodate large numbers of migrant workers, keeping the potential labor pool from being able to live close enough to make such employment possible.

But a strong wage—the article mentions hourly wages of up to $17—should be enough incentive to move people in need of work out into the fields.

It may be worth our time to evaluate our nation’s long-storied “Protestant work ethic.” Have we stigmatized certain jobs or types of labor as being “beneath us”—or being “beneath our children”?

Have you ever heard someone say, “That work is for Mexicans” (often conflating the word “Mexican” for “Hispanic”)? In addition to being racially offensive, did they realize their words were closing off the legitimacy of these jobs to the teens and unskilled laborers who were within earshot of the comments? You can’t make such comments around impressionable ears for years, then expect the teen to put down his Wii and leave his air condition in order to pick strawberries—not even for $17 an hour.

When a pound of in-season strawberries sells for $20/pound, one of two things will happen. Either American citizens will be in the fields, or American citizens will overhaul immigration policies.


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