Immigration and Our Conflict of Visions

Jim Prevor - The Fruits of Thought

Jim Prevor - The Fruits of ThoughtImmigration 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 ‬Though theoretically the unemployed or those who have withdrawn from the labor force could be expected to do this work‭, ‬everything from cultural expectations to a substantial welfare state makes this an unlikely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.

As an industry, we must engage with the concerns of those who voted for Brexit and for Trump.

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 ‬‭, ‬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.‬