Fortunately, while I’ve had plenty of dirty, nasty, physically demanding, and ill-paid jobs over the course of my lifetime, I’ve never had to work as an agricultural laborer. The closest I ever came was picking blueberries for fun – plenty grueling, but commercially cultivated blueberries cannot compare for sweetness with the tiny little blueberries of the sort we picked as kids. Even as a child, I realized that bending down in the late summer sun in hopes of filling a half-gallon Tupperware container nearly to the top was both boring and uncomfortable. But the payoff was blueberry pie, blueberry crumb cake, blueberry muffins,and blueberry pancakes. So half a day per year toiling in the blueberry patches up in the woods a couple of miles from our house, or over in Hadwen Park, was worth it.
I remember one year when I knocked over my half-filled container.
A tragedy of the first order. (When you’re nine years old, at any rate.)
In college, I did walk a couple of picket lines on behalf of grape workers, striking for the right to organize, and once heard Cesar Chavez speak.
Viva La Huelga!
But you don’t have to have done stoop labor to recognize that picking fruits and vegetables is extraordinarily hard work – and not particularly rewarding – even if it is “better” now than it was before the UFW started organizing.
The nature of the work is the reason why, for as long as any of us can remember, a lot of it’s been done by poor immigrants.
Years ago, there was bracero program to bring migrant workers over the border legally on an as-needed basis. But so many illegal workers flooded in that they undermined the wages that the legal braceros were paid. The bracero program was ended in the mid-1960’s and since then famers have done the wink-wink, nudge-nudge and turned a blind eye to whether the Mexicans who were picking their lettuce, onion, and melon crops were legal or not. And, as consumers, we get to join in the fun by demanding lower and lower prices. If we think about it, we may not like the fact that the workers who helped bring that bargain iceberg to our fridges get paid squat to squat, but, hey, who wants to pay a dime more than they have to for anything?
But if anyone’s directly profited by having hundreds of thousands of desperately poor immigrants teeming in over our borders from Latin America, it’s been the farmers who’ve been doing the hiring.
…according to Erik Nicholson, national vice-president for the United Farm Workers’ union, as many as 70% of American agricultural workers may be undocumented. (Source: The Economist)
Unfortunately for them, the tough immigration bills that are being passed in some states are putting a big hurting on the farm world. That’s because legal migrant workers who feel that they’re going to be aggressively hassled for driving while Mexican, and illegal migrant workers assessing the odds of their being deported that just got higher, are going to bypass the states with the red-white-and-blue-est anti-immigration laws.
The case in point is Georgia, where a strict new law will go into effect on July 1st (unless the courts throw it down or out).
So a lot of the folks who’ve traditionally picked all those Vidalia onions, all those peaches, all those peanuts, are taking a pass on Georgia this year.
Georgia has a huge agricultural industry. It’s the state’s largest, and employs 13% of the workforce.
According to the Pew Hispanic Centre, in 2010 Georgia had around 425,000 such [undocumented] immigrants, putting it seventh among American states.
But that was yesterday, and yesterday’s gone.
Today’s a different story. The Georgia Agribusiness Council conducted a recent survey in which nearly half of the respondents said they had too few workers this year.
Too few workers translates into a lot of dying on the vine. The director of Georgia’s Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association estimates that his industry may experience a loss of $300M this year.
Georgia’s governor, Nathan Deal, is trying to “encourage” probationers who are out of work to replace the immigrant workers, which, of course, conjures up all kinds of images of chain gangs and Cool Hand Luke. So far, a few probationers have signed up, but from what I’ve read, most have quit after a day or so. It’s sweltering in Georgia in the summer, and who wants to risk death-by-heat for peanuts – other than those for whom there is absolutely no other option. Like the poor and downtrodden who can’t even scratch out a subsistence living south of our border.
But do farm workers actually make peanuts?
Not according to Georgia’s Agricultural Commissioner, Gary Black:
"Understand that these are $12, $13, $14, $16, $18 an hour jobs," Black told 90.1 WABE-FM’s Denis O'Hayer in an interview. "Talked to a gentleman yesterday, they had a crew of people, they were going to make $130 a day picking cucumbers. That’s 130 buckets of cucumbers, $1 per bucket." (Source on the Black interview: Politifact.)
Sure, you’re not working in A/C like you would be in Walmart, and you don’t get a cool polyester shirt like you would at Burger King, but $18/hour doesn’t sound bad for such a low-skill job.
Sounds almost too good to be true….
Which is why Politifact Georgia checked it out.
Reporters for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution interviewed workers and farmers who said pickers earned about $100 a day. One worker said she expected to work about 12 hours for that amount.
Which looks more like $8/hour and change.
Then there’s this, from the Georgia Department of Labor:
For 13 weeks during July, August and September, 10,600 or so workers in Georgia were involved in "crop production," or worked in farms, orchards, groves, greenhouses and nurseries that grow crops or plants. This group can include supervisors.
They made an average of $367 per week, the data show.
Pay varied depending on the crop. For instance, some 3,100 vegetable and melon workers made an average of $311 a week; about 1,000 blueberry and other non-strawberry crop workers made about $268; soybean crop workers (there were only 17) made about $666.
A further note on the soybean workers: they’re running complex machinery, so one would expect them to be more highly compensated.
However you run the numbers, unless someone’s working less than a 20 hour week, they’re not making $18 an hour picking melons.
Of course, given that farm workers are paid based on their production (e.g., 38 cents for each bucket of onions picked), it’s theoretically possible that someone could pick nearly 50 buckets of onions an hour. It’s just that it doesn’t happen in real life.
If farm workers could realistically earn that kind of money, there probably wouldn’t be any problem getting folks to pick crops – and not just the parolees that Georgia’s governor wants out there.
It will be interesting to see how this all turns out, but it sounds like a case of as you sow so shall you reap for the farm states so eager to put the screws to our immigrant farm workers.