Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Farm workers accuse employers of bias, favoring immigrant workers

Ethan Bronner reports in today's New York Times from Vidalia, Georgia, with this lede:
For years, labor unions and immigrant rights activists have accused large-scale farmers, like those harvesting sweet Vidalia onions here this month, of exploiting Mexican guest workers. Working for hours on end under a punishing sun, the pickers are said to be crowded into squalid camps, driven without a break and even cheated of wages. 
But as Congress weighs immigration legislation expected to expand the guest worker program, another group is increasingly crying foul — Americans, mostly black, who live near the farms and say they want the field work but cannot get it because it is going to Mexicans.
Those American workers have filed several suits against Georgia growers like Stanley Farms.  Sherry Tomason is among the plaintiffs in that case. She argues that the employer for whom she worked for seven years , against an employer for whom she worked for seven years.  Tomason is quoted:
They like the Mexicans because they are scared and will do anything they tell them to.
An owner of Stanley Farms, Brian Stanley, tells another story: 
We have tried to fill our labor locally.  But we couldn’t get enough workers, and that was hindering our growth. So we turned to the guest worker program.
Stanley and other farmers assert that "Americans who say they want the work end up quitting because it is hard, leaving the crops to rot in the fields."  The comments of Jon Schwalls, director of operations at Southern Valley, had racist overtones:
When Jose gets on the bus to come here from Mexico he is committed to the work.  It’s like going into the military. He leaves his family at home. The work is hard, but he’s ready. A domestic wants to know: What’s the pay? What are the conditions? In these communities, I am sorry to say, there are no fathers at home, no role models for hard work. They want rewards without input.
And some local workers do acknowledge that, unlike the immigrant workers who are bused in for short periods of time, they are not willing to work around the clock for several consecutive days to increase their pay.  

Jim Knoepp of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has lobbied against the guest worker program, amplifies the domestic worker's point:
There used to be lots of American pickers who moved around the country.  But wages have stagnated and conditions have deteriorated, and agriculture is unwilling to make these jobs attractive. Think of trash collection. That’s not very appealing, either. But if you offer a decent wage and conditions, people do it.
In fact, according to Cindy Hahamovitch, a professor at the College of William and Mary who studies guest worker programs, domestic workers comprised two-thirds of farm laborers in the 1970s, immigrant workers the remaining third.  Within a decade, those proportions flipped, and now the vast majority of agricultural workers are immigrants, though most are not in the guest worker program.   

Bronner's is a very thoughtful story, giving due to both sides of a difficult issue.  I believe that an exceptionally strong work ethic was historically a feature of the U.S. work force (of all colors), but employers take advantage of such a strong work ethic--just as they currently take advantage of immigrant labor in part because of that exceptional work ethic.  I appreciate that immigrant laborers are now willing to work harder than many Americans, but a considerable downside to that right now is that employers are not forced to treat any workers well because they have the option of desperate immigrant labor.  The quote above from Jon Schwalls speaks volumes about the attitudes of some employers.  Since when it is not OK to ask about the pay rate?  about working conditions?  Since when is it not OK to expect fair pay and breaks for one's labor?

Other recent reports on the role of immigrant labor in agriculture are here and here.  These focus on the dairy industry, which like a handful of other agricultural sectors, requires year-round labor.  


Patricija said...

I think this is peripherally tie to Joan Williams' work on the American economy's relationship with work-life balance. Something in your piece jumped out at me - these immigrants leave their families behind. They are here to work and work only. I think the thing that makes American workers "less desirable" is that they have families and they want to spend time with them. They care when they get off and if they can see a recital. If we can make some progress on that front, perhaps we can decrease the magnitude employers can take advance of workers.

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