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January 2008, Volume 14, Number 1

AgJOBS, Shortages

The Agricultural Job Opportunity, Benefits and Security Act (S340/H371) would allow up to 1.5 million unauthorized farm workers to "earn" a legal immigrant status by continuing to do farm work over the next five years and revise the existing H-2A program to make it easier for farm employers to hire guest workers.

AgJOBS, which was expected to be attached to the Farm Bill in October 2007, drew opposition from those opposed to amnesty and from those who considered the Farm Bill controversial enough without adding an immigration issue. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) announced on November 5, 2007 said: "I had every intention of offering [AgJOBS] as an amendment on the farm bill...[but] we have decided not to endanger the broad support for AgJOBS by taking a non-representative vote on the Farm bill."

Feinstein said that a major reason for enacting AgJOBS now was because of "labor shortages far into the future. Fruit will rot. Crops will go unharvested. Operations will be forced to cut back or move to Mexico. And U.S. agriculture will lose market share to growers abroad - in China, in South America, in Europe."

However, Feinstein was quoted in the October 10, 2007 Ag Alert saying: "There's no proof that in Oregon, for example, they're missing X thousand number of workers or in Washington they're short. We have no state-by-state total of worker shortages." Feinstein said: "It's very hard to find this information. People don't want to come forward and say they're short workers. They find ways to get the work done."

Farm Bureau President Bob Stallman, during an October 4, 2007 hearing of the House Committee on Agriculture said he is often asked: "When is Congress going to fix our labor issues," suggesting that Congress rather than farmers have the answer. Stallman's testimony emphasized that over half of US crop workers are unauthorized, average farm worker earnings are above the minimum wage, and that stepped up enforcement without a revised guest worker program would hurt the competitiveness of US farmers and increase imports.

The Washington Post, in a December 3, 2007 editorial entitled "Rot in the fields," predicted: "Look for the labor shortages, and instances of rotting produce, to grow more acute next year (2008)." It endorsed AgJOBS, arguing that it is fair to allow experienced but unauthorized farm workers to earn an immigrant status in exchange for further streamlining the H-2A program. The editorial concluded that, since only two percent of farm workers were H-2A workers, the H-2A program was "cumbersome and unreliable."

There is no definition of shortage in most economic texts, except to explain the consequences of government-set price ceilings. For example, rent controls can lead to more people wanting lower-priced apartments than are available, a shortage that can be remedied by ending the controls and allowing rents to rise to market-clearing levels. Labor shortages can similarly be remedied by allowing wages to rise, which in agriculture does far more to reduce the demand for workers rather than increase the supply.

The farm press is not reporting significant labor shortages, and government data suggest that production of most labor-intensive commodities is increasing. The Capital Press on December 15, 2007 reported that most Washington growers found sufficient farm workers in 2006 and 2007, and that the prospect of higher wages has increased interest in both mechanization and the H-2A program.

The Arizona Republic reported that lettuce growers were worried about labor shortages, but also complained of overproduction of lettuce that has held down prices over the past five years. Most of the harvest workers employed in Yuma county vegetable fields live in Yuma or in San Luis, Sonora. Local observers agree that the legal and experienced harvest work force is aging, and that younger unauthorized workers who enter the US do not remain in the Yuma area and risk arrest. One legal worker interviewed said that harvesting crews contain unauthorized workers, and that their presence holds down wages.

To attract workers, some Arizona growers are offering $50 cash advances at the end of each work day- the payments are deducted from worker paychecks at the end of the week. The Yuma-based Independent Agricultural Worker's Center aims to help Mexican workers and US employers participate in the H-2A program, and reported 3,300 applications from workers and inquiries from 800 employers in November-December 2007. The H-2A workers are guaranteed the 2007 AEWR of $8.27 an hour, and the IAWC is housing H-2A workers in apartments, hotels or labor camps near Dateland.

US fruit and vegetable production is expanding, and labor shortages are not the sole or only reason to move production to Mexico, according to the Star-Telegram on November 4, 2007. J&D Produce seeks to lengthen the season by growing crops in Mexico, saying it is "chasing the climate and growing melons, greens, peppers, onions" with 200 seasonal workers in Mexico. The company also hires 250 seasonal employees in the Rio Grande Valley, paying them $7.25 an hour to produce "niche crops" such as Swiss chard, Italian peppers, bok choy and fresh dill.

The south Texas division of Florida-based Duda Farm Fresh Foods reported labor problems in Mexico, complaining that Mexican workers in Mexico quit after achieving their target earnings at the Duda-set piece rate. Eventually, 20 workers from Texas were taken over the border to cut Duda's celery in Mexico. Duda, which pays its south Texas workers $5.85 an hour, grows celery and onions in the US as well. Its manager says that harvesting the sweet onions such as the 1012 variety by machine is difficult, but "As labor gets more difficult to find, they'll come with one [a machine]. The need hasn't been there."

The AEWR in Texas is $8.66 an hour in 2007. Some 1,500 H-2A jobs were certified to be filled with H-2A workers in FY07.

Mike Martin of Rio Queen, who grows and ships citrus fruits, onions, tomatoes and honeydew melons from the McAllen area, said: "It's not that we can't find people. We have to pay more." According to the Star-Telegram, few growers reported crop losses for lack of workers.

The main Republican supporter of AgJOBS in the Senate, Larry Craig (R-ID), promised to resign in September 2007 after pleading guilty to soliciting sex in a men's room in the Minneapolis airport. Craig, who said that Idaho needed him in the Senate, did not resign despite allegations from a number of men who said they had sex with him.

Farm employers have long worried about the availability and cost of labor. However, few studies find national farm labor shortages. The Commission on Agricultural Workers concluded in its November 1992 report that: "despite an expanding perishable crop industry, the national supply of agricultural labor has been more than adequate for the past several years... there is currently no need to supplement the farm work force with additional foreign workers beyond those authorized through the existing H-2A program" (p. xxii).

Betty Beard, "New law gives labor-starved Yuma more challenges," Arizona Republic, December 24, 2007. Wes Nelson, "Fruit growers scramble on labor," Capital Press, December 15, 2007. Barry Shlachter, "More laborers picking different fields of work," Star-Telegram, November 4, 2007.


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