Can the Food Industry Kick Its Cheap Labor Habit?

Offering undocumented workers a legal path to citizenship is bound to change the food supply chain profoundly.

Much of the food indsustry, from farms to restaurants, is dependent on the cheap labor of undocumented workers. (Photo: John Moore)

Feb 4, 2013· 4 MIN READ
Twilight Greenaway is the managing editor of Civil Eats. She has worked as a writer and editor on the web since 2000.

As the nation inches closer to immigration reform—both the Obama administration and a bipartisan group of eight senators have expressed a commitment to working on a path toward citizenship for the 11 million people living in the U.S. without documentation—some big questions remain about how that reform will impact the food chain.

The fact is, many of those 11 million people are working to put food on our plates in one form or another. Around 1.2 million (nearly ten percent) of the nation’s undocumented laborers are employed on farms. Add to that number the many people who work in feedlots, slaughterhouses, warehouses, factories, and restaurants and you get the idea; our cheap and plentiful food supply is really only possible because it is produced by undocumented workers.

They work long hours for pay that’s often less than they’ve agreed to when hired. (According to the 2012 report The Hands That Feed Us, undocumented laborers are more than twice as likely to earn less than minimum wage and twice as likely to experience wage theft than their documented coworkers). So it’s probably not entirely surprising to learn that seven of the ten worst paying jobs in the nation are food-related. And because undocumented workers don’t have the rights of citizens, they are often vulnerable to abuse, sexual assault, and inhumane working conditions.

Will immigration reform change the face of food work? Absolutely. But whether it will really mean improved working conditions for the people at the bottom of the food hierarchy is yet to be seen. While it’s looking possible that some food workers could soon move along a path toward citizenship, big farms aren’t likely to give up their claim to cheap labor. As a result, the year ahead could present labor groups, farmers and immigration advocates with a complex dance to perform.

It’s well known that American citizens simply refuse do farm jobs (and other similar food system work). And the fact that the current Senate plan would allow undocumented residents to gain citizenship after paying a fine, paying back taxes, and undergoing background check, is encouraging. But it raises the obvious question: When presented with more options for education, and living without the fear of deportation, will these men and women continue to fill the jobs that are exempt from minimum wage and overtime laws? Or are those jobs generally so grueling and underpaid that they will only ever be filled by people who no other viable options?

This is where the idea of a revamping the guest-worker program comes into the picture. Currently, guest workers in the U.S. are anything but our guests. The current program, called H-2A, is often characterized by broken contracts, lack of freedom on the part of the worker, and substandard housing.

Diana Tellefson Torres of United Farm Workers (UFW) is concerned about the vague language she’s hearing from lawmakers about revamping the guest worker program. For one, she knows it could undo the work her organization has done to keep workers from getting a raw deal under H-2A.

“We’ve worked for so many years to include protection from the abuse that farmworkers often endure in the guest worker program,” she says. “We saw it during the Bracero Program earlier this century, and we see it now. So we’ve fought hard for these changes.”

Of course, in states such as California, where those labor protection laws are enforced, most farm owners simply avoid using the H-2A program altogether.

Eric Larson, head of the San Diego County Farm Bureau, told Public Radio International (PRI), “Sure, the H-2A program says go ahead and bring farm workers in, but the H-2A program doesn’t work.” The article continues:

To participate, farmers have to prove to the US Labor Department that they have tried to hire American workers but could not. They must transport guest workers from their home country, often Mexico, and provide housing and three meals a day. They must also show that their guest workers will not drag down local wages. All this means lots of money, paperwork and, often, attorneys.

“Consequently, nobody uses it,” said Larson. “I think we’ve got one farmer in San Diego County that uses the H-2A for about eight workers, where in reality we have 10,000 to 12,000 farm workers in San Diego County.”

Subsequently, most farm owners simply hire undocumented workers who have already entered the country on their own steam.

And what about the farm labor shortages we keep hearing so much about? All over the country, farm owners talk about planting fewer rows and letting food go to waste in the fields because they can’t find workers. And while it is true that other farm costs—like seeds, animal feed, and fertilizer—have all gone up in recent years, farm pay has stayed relatively constant

But as John Carney over at CNBC pointed out, near the end of last year, “If there were a labor shortage, we'd see the price of farm labor rising rapidly. We just don't see that—indicating that there is no shortage at all.” Instead, he continues, there is, “a consistent cry from the farm lobby for policy makers to adopt policies aimed at lowering labor costs.

UFW’s Torres agrees. “When they say there’s a labor shortage, I honestly feel that they would prefer to bring temporary workers using a program that doesn’t have labor protection. The ‘labor shortage’ is a talking point to make that case. There is no real shortage of people.”

A recent research paper from U.C. Davis, covered in the Washington Post last week, offers up another piece of the puzzle. The paper’s authors argue that Mexico—the nation from where the bulk of our farm workers come—is gaining on the U.S. financially. “Not only are Mexican workers shifting into other sectors like construction, but Mexico’s own farms are increasing wages. That means U.S. farms will have to pay higher and higher wages to attract a dwindling pool of available Mexican farm workers.”

The answer, as the authors see it, is to increase mechanization and bring more high-tech harvesting systems to America’s farms, which will mean fewer workers overall. This shift seems inevitable in today’s technologically advancing world, but, in the meantime, it’s possible that valuing our food more, wasting less of it, and spending just a little more on what we purchase could go a long way toward balancing the food-labor equation. In the case of produce, the math is clear.

Philip Martin, a labor economist at the University of California, Davis (and, not coincidentally, also one of the authors of the above paper) laid it out in The New York Times’ “Room for Debate” section in 2011. He wrote:

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.

Another option—and the one Torres and other advocates will be pushing for—is a guest worker program more like the one they have in Canada. There, the workers aren’t tied to a single farm, and if they complain, they can return home or move to a farm that treats them better. If these rights sound pretty basic, consider this: They’re better than the ones workers who come to the U.S. through H-2A have now. And many farm owners are pushing for less.