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November 1994, Volume 1, Number 10

Agricultural Labor Shortages

On September 27, 1994, the Los Angeles Times reported that "raisin farmers were hit by shortage of workers." The article quoted grower assertions that 50 percent of the estimated 50,000 harvest workers who cut bunches of grapes and lay them on paper trays to dry into raisins were unauthorized, that farm labor contractors who organize the crews to harvest grapes were reporting 15 to 20 percent shortages, and that there was a conflict between traditional grower support for Governor Wilson and his endorsement of the SOS initiative that would deny benefits to illegal immigrants. The story ended on a familiar refrain, quoting a raisin packer asserting that "if you removed every illegal alien from this state tomorrow, you'd see the business--and not just the agricultural business--start to crumble."

Growers fear that the passage of Proposition 187 will lead severe labor shortages. They have already met with the INS to discuss what will happen if the proposition passes. Some growers are pushing for a guestworker program to allow temporary farm workers to enter the country legally.

"Farm labor shortages" were the rallying cry of California and other western farmers in the debate preceding IRCA in 1986, and California Congressional representatives from Representatives Coehlo and Panetta to Senator Wilson energetically pushed their colleagues to accept their constituents arguments that the "nature of California agriculture" required a unique guestworker program. Such activities prompted President Clinton in October 1994 to note that 'If the people in California would be fully candid, they would have to say that leadership decisions made in the past in California have actually facilitated illegal immigration."

Farmers won in IRCA, a unique SAW legalization program and insurance that, if too many newly-legalized farmworkers left the fields, replenishment immigrants could be imported. And farmers monitored the labor market closely. In 1987, isolated reports of labor shortages led then-Senator Pete Wilson to write a letter to President Reagan complaining of "burdensome SAW application procedures." In the House, Representative Fazio requested a GAO survey of West Coast growers to provide "proof" of a farm labor shortage.

Fazio won a border-entry legalization program under which alien workers without documents could come to a US port of entry, assert that they had worked as illegal aliens in 1985-86, and then receive temporary work permits to enter the US, so that they could work while obtaining documentation of their 1985-86 employment, and then apply for legalization. Over 100,000 aliens entered the US in this manner, helping to end complaints of labor shortages.

There were practically no reports of farm labor shortages between 1988 and 1993. Indeed, in preparing its final report in 1992, the grower-dominated Commission on Agricultural Workers concluded that "there is a general oversupply of farm labor nationwide." (xx), that "employer sanctions have been ineffective at preventing, and have not significantly curtailed, the employment of unauthorized workers in agriculture," (xxi), and that, "since IRCA, growers have generally been able to make planting decisions and assume that workers would be available...INDIVIDUAL PRODUCERS...may experience spot labor shortages [that can be remedied with] better systems for recruiting and training workers, transporting them to their jobs, and providing housing."(xxiii, emphasis added).

Raisin harvesting is the single most labor-intensive harvesting activity in North America, and fears of farm labor shortages have been part of the industry since is founding in California in the 1880s--there were almost as many acres of raisin grapes in California in 1920 as there are today. The raisin industry is part of the larger grape industry--about 48 percent of California's 700,000 acres of vineyards are planted with varieties that are usually used for wine, 40 percent to raisin varieties, and 12 percent for table grape varieties. But the major raisin grape variety--Thompson seedless--is versatile--it can be used for table grapes, wine, or raisins. The need for raisin harvesters near Fresno depends on the relative prices of tables grapes, wine grapes, and raisin grapes, as well as whether the raisin industry is engaged in one of its periodic don't-pick programs to limit the supply and thus increase the price of raisins.

Raisin harvesting is a relatively short-term and low-paying job. According the most recent definitive study of raisin harvesters, workers prefer jobs that last longer than the four- to six-week raisin harvest, such as citrus harvesting, or jobs that enable them to have higher hourly earnings, such as Washington apple harvesting. Although there is a relative lull in worker activity in early August, growers aiming to maximize the sugar content of their raisins wait as long as possible to begin harvesting their grapes, which produces a perennial labor shortage as growers scramble to get the grapes cut and dried by the sun before the first rain falls.

In 1994, there was bumper crop of raisins and a bumper crop of Washington apples. Many workers went north to pick apples, resulting in a "shortage" of raisin harvesters. Some officials estimate that the labor pool shrank by 15 percent. Many growers reluctantly raised the raisin piecerate wage from $0.15 to $0.16 or even $0.17 for each 25 pounds of green grapes that are cut and laid on a paper tray to dry. Many growers also raised the commission they pay to farm labor contractors from $0.05 to $0.06, but $0.16 was the average rate paid in 1991. At this rate, 10 percent of the workers earned less than the $4.25 minimum wage in 1991.

In 1994, rains came with about 25 percent still on the ground. Growers predicted that the combination of rains and the labor shortage will lower crop estimates between 20,000 to 50,000 tons for a total yield of approximately 404,677 tons. However, even though the rain may have ruined some of the raisins drying in the sun, the president of the Fresno Cooperative Raisin Growers noted that "Even if the 25 percent that's out in the field now got totally wiped out by rain, there's still plenty of raisins to take care of supply and demand for a whole year."

There will always be labor shortages in the raisin industry--the only question is how much growers will complain about them. Any industry that offers a short season of work, does little to recruit workers, and discards them when the harvest is completed, will be forced to use workers who are trying to find better jobs. SOS provides a convenient political target for what in 1994 appears to be better job opportunities for workers who might in other years found raisin harvesting to be their best US job option.

Mark Arax, "Raisin farmers hit by shortage of workers," Los Angeles Times September 27, 1994, A3, 22. CAW Final Report, November 1992; "Rain causes some problems, but no major damage," Ag Alert, October 5, 1994, 4. Louis Freedberg, "Despite Rhetoric, Agriculture Has Long Relied on Immigrants," The San Francisco Chronicle, October 25, 1994, A5. Ed Mendell, "Growers fear labor shortages if voters end social services," San Diego Union-Tribune, October 17, 1994. Benjamin Seto, "Farming: A job and a lifestyle." Fresno Bee, October 23, 1994. Karen Brandon, "Illegal Immigration: A Drain or an Assett?" Chicago Tribune, October 18, 1994. Benjamin Seto, "Farmers Looking for Raisin Pickers," Fresno Bee, September 13, 1994. Philip Martin, "Good Intentions Gone Awry: IRCA and US Agriculture," The Annals, July, 1994, Vol. 534, pp 44-57.