Why should farmers or anyone else have a right to cheap labor?

I’ve plowed this ground before, so to speak, but I have to ask the question: why do farmers feel they are entitled to a source of cheap labor? And maybe, for that matter, it is only fair to ask at the same time, why does the U.S. consumer feel entitled to groceries based on cheap labor?

Consumers would howl in protest if illegal aliens took their jobs, but they would also likely complain, more than they already do, about any rise in the cost of groceries attributed to a shortage of cheap labor, primarily from Mexico.

And I know that farmers would have you believe that it is not so much the need for cheap labor as it is the need for labor period, because — we all know the standard argument — Americans will not do stoop labor or climb up ladders to pick fruit and so on.

Actually, there is some truth to that argument. Although once upon a time U.S. citizens, to include, pardon the expression , white people, did all kinds of field labor, along with Mexican immigrants and of course non-whites, for the most part those days are in the past.

In the 1960s there were television documentaries and at least one book about the abuses inflicted upon migrant workers and then under President Johnson’s Great Society programs people were able to get out of migrant labor, even if the result was that new generations would come along and not only not do migrant work, but not do much of anything.

Now partly in response to a shortage of field labor much of agriculture that had not already been mechanized has become so.

Some examples that I am aware of first hand: plums (or prunes as we call them in the area where they are grown in California, even when they are fresh on the tree before they are dried) began to be harvested by machines rather than pickers crawling around in the dirt under the trees (or hand picking them off the tree as was done for some varieties). Same thing with walnuts and almonds.

Even wine grapes can now be harvested by a machine.

But many things, such as many fresh fruits and some vegetables, still defy complete mechanization.

If employers were required to pay higher wages and offer better working conditions and if welfare and unemployment benefit regulations were really enforced, there might not be such a shortage of domestic labor.

And in some cases we might just have to get along without some things — I think I posted this one before, but you know, we could probably get along without iceberg lettuce. We might find it more practical to grow other types of crops that lend themselves more to mechanization.

The demand for hard physical and often stoop labor continues strong, particularly in big agriculture — which is not ma and pa on the farm feeding the chickens and slopping the hogs and milking the cow and hoeing the beans.

During World War II, what with so much of the labor force off to fight overseas, there was the Bracero program in which Mexican men came to work the fields. Many of them were cheated out of their wages.

That program ended in 1964. But Mexicans and others, most of them illegal, have streamed across the border to meet the farm labor demand (and of course the demand for other labor as well).

The agricultural industry got used to using workers without proper authorization, illegal aliens.

Think I mentioned this in one of my previous posts, but I remember an old eccentric woman who ran a kind of a rag of a small town newspaper back in the 70s. She did not mince words. She said right on her front page that her little city’s (area’s) economy depended upon illegal aliens to pick the local olive crop.

At the time, most people, particularly growers, did not admit that in public.

But I see we’ve come a long way. In the April 22 edition of the Wall Street Journal via a letter to the editor, the president of Western Growers, of Irvine, Ca., calls for the support of proposed federal legislation, the so-called agJOBS bill, that would allow farmers to hire illegals, who under certain conditions could eventually get their citizenship.

In a separate letter which I read on the web, California U.S. Sen. Diane Feinstein, a sponsor of the bill, says farmers are going out of business and can’t compete with the rest of the world for the lack of labor.

(And while I was writing this I heard an item on the news that Stockton, California’s Asparagus Festival is being held amid a vast reduction in asparagus plantings which has resulted from competition from imports.   Add1: It occurs to me that the smaller scale — less or no outside labor required — locally-grown sustainable farming method could replace some of that lost market. )

Hey, I don’t want to see anyone go out of business and I know when farmers cut back it has a drastic impact on the economy because of all the related jobs that go with agriculture, and I don’t want my groceries to cost any more than they do. But I don’t feel good about saving money by importing cheap labor. And why should the agricultural industry get a special privilege to import cheap labor? Actually I guess even high tech and other industries import relatively cheap or cheaper labor through special emergency visa programs.

I’d rather see employers be forced to pay decent wages. When they are not, the public has to step in and pay the extra costs through social welfare programs that provide for the poor working class, to include legal and illegal aliens.

And in this day and age, working men are not as willing — and nor should they be — to leave their families behind to be part of guest worker programs.

Letting employers import cheaper labor depresses the wages for everyone and brings the national standard of living down.

The argument, even outside the farm labor issue, always seems to be we can’t afford to pay decent wages, which is another way of saying we can’t afford to let other people live as well as we do (even though we expect their labor).


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