photo source: flickr by ah zut ~ “la cueillette des fraises”
strawberry picking in Sonoma done mostly by Hmong farmers.
This past week the NYTs article, “Hiring Locally for Farm Work Is No Cure-All
” described how a Colorado onion and sweet corn farmer couldn’t find enough local help to work in his fields. There are well over 400 reader comments under the article. The NYTs followed up the story with a Room for Debate titled, “What happened to the American work ethic?
” It, too, was excellent, so I recommend reading both if you haven’t.
Few people are willing to do the hard physical labor required to farm under often harsh weather conditions while living in social isolation without many city amenities. This is not just an American problem, as migrant labor issues are present in Europe, the UK, Canada, Australia and elsewhere. In the developing world, young rural countryside residents in large numbers are migrating to cities in China, India, Africa, and other nations to escape farm labor.
Today, farming is all about efficiency. Huge farms. Huge hot houses. Big agribusiness. Copious amounts of chemicals. Huge grocery chains. Cheap labor. Robotics. Huge central distribution centers. Cheap transportation. Cheap food. Spoiled consumers. We are in a global competition to produce goods cheaply, including food. Labor costs get squeezed and might even go underground.
A few months ago, I saw the Migrant Workers Journey (2009) photography exhibit in the New Mexico Art Museum in SantaFe. The photographers, Michele Palazzi and Alessandro Penso, focused on the migrant African farm workers who came to a specific region of Italy, Boreano, Basilicata.
[Photo&Video: Michele Palazzi / Alessandro Penso. Editing: Massimo Bui.]
According to the Migrant Workers Journey exhibit, there are almost 4,900,000 migrants in Italy, with 700,000 irregulars. These workers move for miles from East to West and from South to North harvesting melons, tomatoes, grapes, olives and oranges. In Basilicata, there are about 3,000 migrants willing to work 12 hours per day for only 25 euros, living in abandoned rural houses without electricity or running water.
Italy’s migrant farm worker problems are quite well-know, and so are Spain’s.
From a NYTs 2008 article about immigration problems in Europe:
Southern Europe’s tolerance for illegal immigration has several explanations. Its aging populations and booming economies created a need for foreign workers. Its proximity to northern Africa and eastern Europe places it close to countries that supply them. And its economies have traditionally depended more on off-the-books workers.
No country has run more legalization programs than Spain, which has carried out six since 1985. As recently as a decade ago, immigrants made up less than 2 percent of the population. Now they are more than 10 percent. About 40 percent come from eastern and northern Europe; 38 percent come from Latin America; and 20 percent from Africa.
Eventually, this migrant farm worker situation has huge ramifications for entire nations. What I couldn’t help but note from the above NYTs article was this sentence in the second paragraph, “In the last two decades, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Greece have run at least 15 legalization programs, including a Spanish effort three years ago that was among the Continent’s largest.” That would be the PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Spain)…. the same European nations which were threatening the entire region’s stability due to their fiscal insolvency.
This led me to look at the states within the U.S.
The largest migrant worker population state? California. The state with the worst balance sheet? California. Remember that California’s GDP would equal the world’s eighth largest economy and it is the world’s fifth largest supplier of food and agriculture commodities.
Let’s look at the top seven states which a 2009 Pew Center study named the most fiscally troubled: California, Arizona, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Nevada, and New Jersey. Next, I’ve compared this list to the 2000 U.S. Census Bureau statistics list of the seven states which have the highest Hispanic populations: California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, Arizona, and New Jersey. The strong overlap between the two lists is five out of seven states: California, Arizona, Florida, Illinois, and New Jersey.
Note that immigrant farm laborers are used primary in the temperate climate regions since those are the most productive year round vegetable and fruit producing areas and we all purchase these products, so it doesn’t matter where we live, if we want lettuce or tomatoes in January, then we all benefit and we all share in the real true costs.
I do not wish to make any political or prejudicial statements here, I am only noting observations. The current immigrant farm worker model used by our world’s developed nations has far reaching ramifications beyond the performance of the actual labor, and I’m not the first to say that. The related social, ethical, political, and humanitarian issues have been described many times by others and goes beyond today’s writing. It is a complex subject, and since the developed nations use an economic growth model requiring growing, youthful demographic populations, integrating the farm workers provides that desirable demographic shift providing an ever larger consumer base. When I reviewed three articles on this subject over at VOXEU, economists who wrote articles about Spain and Western Europe viewed the subject favorably.
Just as immigrant labor has been moving into dairy here in the U.S. this past decade, it will very likely advance into the Midwestern corn and soybean growing regions in the not too distant future, too, dictated by demographics. So far, this region has chosen to pay for more advanced and larger equipment over the hiring of labor with hints that robotics may be on the horizon.
Since fruit, vegetable, and all food harvests are seasonal, much of the labor required is temporary, and global markets for these products mean that global wage competition to bring these products to the market races to the bottom, or, perhaps the production itself relocates to regions with cheap labor just as asparagus production has been leaving the U.S. and moving to Peru, Chile, and Mexico in recent years. As long as there are regions of the world wishing to provide the cheap labor required to harvest these crops, agricultural managers willing to hire them, and politics that encourage it, this reality in our agricultural system is here to stay.
References and recommended additional reading:
- (TheEcologist) UK: In contrast to the squalid conditions faced by many migrant farm workers, employees of salad producer G’s Marketing live in specially-built hostels with a social centre, sports pitches and a bar. Is this the future of industrial horticulture?
- (the Guardian) Open door: The Guardian’s reporting about illegal migrant workers in Spain – The readers’ editor on… a compelling story of modern-day ‘slavery’ Mar 2011
- (the Guardian) Spain’s salad growers are modern-day slaves, say charities – Investigation uncovers plight of migrant workers who live in appalling conditions and are paid half of legal minimum wage (includes fascinating 13-minute video) Feb 2011
- Why More Migration Makes Sense by Ian Goldin and Geoffrey Cameron Project Syndicate 2011
- A European Opening for the Arab World by Volker Perthes Project Syndicate 2011
- Needed But Not Wanted by Ian Buruma Project Syndicate 2011
- (DailyCensored) African Farm Workers Face Repressive Conditions in Italy Jan 2010
- (Mailonline) Immigrant riot in Italy leaves 37 injured after series of beatings by white youths Jan 2010
- (the telegraph) Immigrant workers forced into Spanish black market – In a leafy corner of the Casa de Campo, the large park on the western outskirts of the Spanish capital, immigrants gather at illegal weekend markets filled with sellers offering traditional fare from their home countries. Feb 2009
- (NYTs) Spain, Like U.S., Grapples With Immigration – In the last two decades, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Greece have run at least 15 legalization programs, including a Spanish effort three years ago that was among the Continent’s largest. June 2008
- California Agricultural Profile 2008 [pdf]
- Foreign farm workers caught in a trap 2008 [the Australian]
- Immigration in Western Europe by Ottaviano & Peri 2008 [vox]
- The Spanish Approach to Immigration by Dolado 2007 [vox]
- Immigration and Productive tasks: Can Immigrant workers benefit native workers? by D’Amuri & Peri 2010 [vox]