Those who are involved with labor-intensive agriculture find it increasingly difficult to secure a well-trained labor supply in this present climate of consumer demand for a safe food supply grown harvested under just conditions. Regularly cited numbers indicate there are more than 1 million migrant/undocumented farm workers. Agriculture that is characterized by many short-term crops, some as short as 3 to 4 weeks, raises the issue of the availability of a short-term work force and is currently part of the debate of our failed immigration system.
Much has been said of Americans being unwilling to do this work, and advocates argue that increasing wages and benefits would make these jobs more appealing to “domestics.” While wages and conditions must improve, such reforms will not be enough to guarantee a secure workforce—the most compelling reason being that a permanent resident or a citizen living in the United States cannot support a family for 12 months of the year on very short-term jobs. Both domestic and immigrant workers have a natural desire to seek more stable employment outside agriculture offering better and more consistent pay. It is difficult to train and retain good workers in this setting.
Currently, the debate over temporary workers is centered on the H-2A visa, which is the only way agribusiness can secure a legal workforce from outside the United States. As the debate goes, farmers would like to minimize bureaucracy and streamline the visa process, which would lessen the expense and secure a dependable work force for their perishable crops. Advocates for the workers want safeguards from abuses. They want to minimize the undercutting of wages and standards that pit temporary workers against domestic workers, and they want to allow a path to citizenship.
Advocates from both farmers and farm workers have been stymied repeatedly by limiting solutions to federal and state regulatory and, thereby political, forums. While good standards are desirable, manufacturers, retailers and other large buyers of agricultural products could transform their own supply chains and procurement systems that would minimize debate and lessen government intervention. When manufacturers financially marginalize those on the bottom of their supply chains in order to increase their profits, farmers are forced to cut corners to survive. Farmers hire workers with the use of “crew leaders” or labor contractors, who historically underpay and sometimes exploit their workers. Farmers are left to deal with these misdeeds, as well as meet the risks of climate catastrophes and the rising costs of fuel, fertilizer and other farm products. They have no bargaining power with buyers to reflect the true cost of doing business with them. Meanwhile, many farm workers are stuck on the very bottom in a life of squalor, low wages and insecurity, frozen in fear about complaining lest they suffer retaliation that is emotionally, physically and spiritually draining.
Immigration reform may bring a desired legal status for many farm workers, but it will not solve the economic marginalization of their systemic inequity. Manufacturers and retailers who control the supply chains can correct the inequities which they have designed. They can alleviate the farmer’s situation with fair contracts that take into account the business costs of a legal labor supply with fair conditions and wages. Recognition of freedom of association that would result in farmers’ unions (associations) and worker unions would create the necessary tensions commanding participation and accountability in the broader community of supply chain discussions. This change in labor and business relations will be essential if all parties are to understand and respond to the market demands for food that is safe, fair and secure.