Immigration has become one of the great dividing issues of our time and one certain to impact the produce industry. In the United Kingdom, proposals for a pilot program to provide seasonal labor for farmers in the Kent area were just rejected, and industry members fear this may be a forbearer of what is to come. In the United States, even with no change in the law, the Trump administration and the subsequent attitude shift toward immigration seem to have already severely reduced the number of illegal immigrants. Perhaps because of efforts to more strictly enforce current immigration laws, the number of immigrants caught on the U.S. border in the American Southwest has dropped by 40 percent since President Trump took office.
To many in the industry, the issue seems clear. There is no indication that Americans or Brits are willing to do the backbreaking work done by people with fewer options. Though theoretically the unemployed or those who have withdrawn from the labor force could be expected to do this work, everything from cultural expectations to a substantial welfare state makes this an unlikely occurrence. Indeed, from official industry testimony given to the government and to the general public, the industry message is clear: Americans and British citizens are not willing to take these jobs and, therefore, allowing immigrants to do harvesting is not taking anyone’s job; it is doing work that citizens are not prepared to do.
This is undeniably true and common all over the world. As a boy, my father brought me to the Dominican Republic, where he did business selling apples, pears and grapes for Christmas. Yet, as our agent drove us around this poor country, we saw people harvesting sugarcane — but those scythes were not swung by Dominicans… that hard work was done by even poorer Haitians.
Many years ago, the United States passed a law to encourage clothing manufacturing in Africa as a tool for economic development. Giving African nations advantages through lower tariffs, the laws encouraged companies to invest in Africa and build manufacturing plants. It wasn’t long, though, before many of those plants were staffed by employees brought in from China. Why? Because of the work ethic of the Chinese — their willingness to endure horrible conditions and turn out high volumes of quality work. This just was not the culture in many parts of Africa.
Yet the produce industry has not been persuasive in making its case, and so the U.K. and U.S. governments have not approved the kind of broad scale temporary worker programs that the industry advocates. Trade in both the United States and U.K. is represented by articulate and knowledgeable people, so it is not for a lack of effective advocacy that these efforts have stalled; it is more a conflict of visions.
The industry is addressing one issue – that Western citizens won’t do this type of work – but the citizens who voted for Brexit and for Trump are thinking of other issues entirely. These citizens have three concerns:
Civic Environment. Many believe we have not attributed the correct cost to our policy of allowing for inexpensive labor. Over at PerishablePundit.com, we published a letter from an industry member explaining this view: “Thirty percent of California prison inmates are in the country illegally. There are 20 murders per year in Salinas, a city of 150,000 people. The city spends almost $1 million on a gang task force every year. These are social costs that are borne by all the citizens of the city and state, and aren’t accounted for in the cost of the produce.”
Long Term Outcomes. The same Pundit article quoted Professor Philip Martin of UC Davis: “Guest worker programs tend to increase legal and illegal immigration for two major reasons: distortion and dependence. Distortion refers to the fact that economies and labor markets are flexible: They adjust to the presence or absence of foreign workers. If foreign workers are readily available, employers can plant apple and orange trees in remote areas and assume migrant workers will be available when needed for harvesting. Dependence refers to the fact that individuals, families, and communities abroad need earnings from foreign jobs to sustain themselves, so a policy decision to stop guest worker recruitment can increase legal and illegal immigration.”
Impact on Low-Wage Employees. Although it may be true citizens won’t take the jobs as currently offered, that is beside the point to many. Nobody really wants poor Americans or Brits to make their livings on the same terms as migrant farm laborers. The thought is if labor markets are constrained, employers will have to make these better jobs. My family used to run a Chilean import business; we found it very difficult to find people to work for us temporarily during the few months of the winter fruit deal. We had to go into other lines, such as tropicals, specifically to have something to sell 52 weeks a year so we could offer year-round employment and thus attract the best workers. Whether through mechanization making the jobs easier or changes in compensation, benefits and a move to full year employment, if cheap labor is unavailable, it will pay to create better jobs that people will want to do.
Of course, all these things come at a price, and it is not clear Americans or Brits really want to pay more for their fruits and vegetables. But that is a different argument than just saying nobody will do these jobs. As an industry, if we don’t engage with the concerns of those who voted for Brexit and for Trump, we will find ourselves increasingly marginalized from public policy discussions that are of deep industry concern.
The Power of Produce 2016 — Shopper research by the Food Marketing Institute, made possible by Yerecic Label and Hill Phoenix and conducted by 210 Analytics in close cooperation with the FMI Fresh Leadership Council.