Crops are rotting on the vine in the United States, thanks to a shortage of workers to pick them, resulting in substantial losses for farmers and their communities at the same time that people in the United States are going hungry, and relying on government assistance for nutritional needs, more and more. The food system in the United States has become far more complex than a simple farm to table progression, but worker shortages do raise a serious potential threat to bringing in the harvest and tie in with larger political issues. In an agricultural system built on exploitation, tough immigration laws are getting rid of one of the easiest groups of people to exploit: undocumented immigrants who have everything to lose if they attempt to report labour violations, assert their rights, or, apparently, go to work in the fields.
Despite ample evidence to the contrary, the old rhetoric about immigrants ‘stealing jobs,’ contributing to rises in crime, and ‘gaming the system’ to take advantage of the dwindling number of social services that have survived vicious budget slashing still runs high. Members of the general public are convinced they need rescuing from immigrants, and that tightening the borders and creating a hostile climate in individual states will solve ‘the immigration problem.’ Hand in hand with these attitudes goes a culture of racism, as only certain immigrants are deemed a ‘problem,’ while others are considered desirable and beneficial. There is an inescapable and direct correlation between skin colour and social acceptance for immigrants to the US.
The migrant worker shortage is an entirely manufactured issue, created by draconian anti-immigration laws, part of a growing national trend in the US. All 50 states proposed immigration-related legislation this year, including tough ‘papers, please’ mandates ordering law enforcement to stop ‘suspicious’ individuals, compelling officers to verify immigration status in routine police matters, and requiring use of the flawed E-Verify system to confirm that workers are eligible for employment in the US. Some of the harshest segments of these controversial laws have withstood legal challenges in state courts, and the naked racism on display in the arguments for byzantine immigration legislation is evidence of the success of right-wing anti-immigration rhetoric, which has effectively sown fear and panic among many whites in the US.
In reaction to these legal shifts, the Latino population has been fleeing several states to seek work elsewhere, in more hospitable climates. Migrant workers in particular are often undocumented, or are members of families with mixed documentation, creating a risk that parents may be deported while children remain behind. Many are not willing to take that risk. States were historically happy to exploit migrant labour for grueling farmwork, to the point that many economies are specifically dependent on undocumented immigrants, and were ill-prepared to lose large segments of their workforce. The consequences have been devastating in agriculture-heavy states that have also passed immigration crackdowns.
A study in Georgia looking at just seven crops noted a shortage of 11,000 workers, and a total loss of almost $75 million. Georgia’s overall economy is slated to take a substantial hit this year, and the drop in the agricultural sector is a significant contributor. Meanwhile, in Alabama, where courts have just upheld harash immigration legislation, a shortage of available farm labourers is leaving farmers with few options when it comes to handling fragile crops that traditionally use manual labour.
Farmwork is extremely hard work. Days can be long, definitely more than the conventional eight hours, and they require repetitive, physically demanding labour, often in suboptimal conditions like driving, relentless sun. Protections under the law for farmworkers are often fought by agriculture corporations, which have a vested interest in exploiting workers for profit; in California, farmworkers can’t even access clean water, and are told to drink from livestock troughs if they got thirsty on the job. It turns out that despite the economy, few people are lining up for jobs on farms in the US, and those that do may be ill-suited for the work, without the physical stamina to handle a full day in the fields.
Georgia proposed proposed using parolees as farmworkers earlier this year, and it’s a consideration that still appears to be on the table as the state struggles with a shortage of workers to handle its crops. Parolees may not be any better suited to the work than anyone else, as they, again, lack the physical ability to cope with the harsh work days. They’re also unlikely to be paid full wages or provided with basic protections because of attitudes about parolee and prison labour, which doesn’t exactly motivate them to get fit for farmwork and to keep working even in harsh conditions.
Toughening economic times can bring out the best and worst in people. Across the United States, an increase in anti-immigrant sentiment, particularly against Latinos, has accompanied increasing economic troubles. States unleash their frustrations on immigrant populations in the form of aggressive, hateful, often explicitly racist legislation that requires all people who might have ‘suspect’ immigration status to carry documentation, to run the risk of being outed by their teachers, to live in fear of deportation even if they are legal residents.
The same attitudes that contribute to racist legislation also contribute to racist culture. Hate crimes against Latinos have been on the rise for several years, demonstrating that when the government legislates hate, it also freely promotes it in the general population. Many victims are afraid to report, especially in states with harsh immigration laws, because they fear retaliation and harassment by law enforcement. States eager to make it clear that immigrants are unwelcome, even at the cost of their own economies, are certainly in no hurry to pass tougher protections for Latino residents.
Farmworker shortages are not a problem that is going to go away if states just click their heels three times and think of home. Ultimately, they may become much worse. While some may herald this as ‘success’ and evidence that anti-immigration laws are succeeding, it’s going to spell big trouble for farms across the United States, which are losing a pool of cheap, disposable, easily exploited labour. It’s also unlikely to result in a sea-change in culture, and the development of better protections, wages, and conditions for farmworkers. Despite numerous battles on this front in the past, the agricultural industry has successfully repelled scores of attempts to create fair, safe working conditions for all labourers, even though the actual costs of implementing basic reforms would be relatively low.
Ultimately, the solution to the farmworker shortage may lie in the economy itself. When economic conditions improve, sentiments about immigration tend to relax, allowing borders to open back up again and leading to repeals of, or a failure to enforce, the worst components of anti-immigration legislation. The result will be a return to the status quo, one where workers are threatened, intimidated, and abused to keep crop prices low and profits high, unless the nation is ready and willing to take collective action on the issue.
What’s clear from the farmworker shortage is that if there’s any area where tough, no-tolerance legislation is needed, it’s not in immigration; it’s in working conditions for farm labourers. Comprehensive reforms should include protections for all workers, including strong whistleblower provisions for workers who report abuses, living wages, enforced weekly hour caps, and access to shelter and potable water in the fields. ‘Guest worker’ proposals should be struck down for the formalised exploitation they are; workers shouldn’t be offered an opportunity to slog in the fields legally, only to be discarded like so much garbage at the end of the growing season.
Farm work isn’t just unpalatable because of the heavy labour involved, but because few workers are willing to volunteer for exploitation to help companies make massive annual profits. That’s the real story behind the shortage, a crisis created not just through racist legislation that eliminates easily exploited people from the labour market, but through an ongoing culture of tolerance for the abuse of farmworkers.
Photo: Mexican migrant workers being deported from Calexico, 1972. Public domain.