Friday, February 23, 2007

Debunking the myth that there are no jobs American's won't do

"There are no jobs Americans won't do – just jobs that don't pay enough to get Americans to do them." It's a phrase that's been repeated ad nauseum by immigration restrictionist from Lou Dobbs to Tom Tancredo.

It's claimed that no matter how backbreaking, temporary or dangerous, if they paid more, Americans would line up for jobs picking lettuce, mopping floors, plucking chickens or doing any of a myriad of other jobs currently held by the over 7 million undocumented workers in the US today.

Yet, in the wake of increased border enforcement and workplace raids we've had the opportunity to test this little theory…..and thus far it appears to have failed the test.


Arizona farmers cite tighter border security and limits on guest workers. They're paying field hands $2 more per hour.

The nature of farming is that it comes with many unknowns: weather, pests, competition from abroad, effectiveness of new machinery. Rick Rademacher isn't clear why the labor pool needs to be another one – especially since so many day laborers from Mexico would be eager to work in his lettuce fields here in the midst of America's "winter salad bowl."

"We struggle daily," he says. "We just hope every day that we can fill the orders."

Empty stations on the harvest lines are more common this year throughout this swath of Arizona farm country, says Rademacher, who serves as president of the Yuma Fresh Vegetable Association. The reasons are many: a 40,000-person limit on the number of foreign guest workers allowed into the US, tighter borders that are discouraging illegal crossings, and rising demand for day laborers in other industries, such as higher-paying construction work.

The shortage of farm workers has been driving wages higher. Last season, base pay for day laborers working in this area was $6.50 an hour. Now it's $8.50. Rademacher says it may go higher because farmers here can't attract enough employees.

Chistian Science Monitor, Feb 22, 2007

The situation was the same last year also.

Situated between the Colorado and Gila rivers, Yuma is blessed with fertile land and abundant water.

Because of its proximity, 20 miles from the Mexico border, Yuma also has what few other agricultural regions do: access to a large pool of legal immigrant workers like Jose Navarro, 45, and Martin Contreras, 32.

They are among the thousands of Mexicans who have gained U.S. citizenship or legal permanent residence but live across the border in San Luis Rio Colorado, Mexico, where the cost of living is cheaper than in the U.S.


Navarro and Contreras said they would earn $6.25 an hour that day working the lettuce fields.

During the harvest, lettuce pickers earn a base pay of $8 an hour, plus bonuses the faster they pick. The best lettuce pickers can earn as much as $12 to $14 an hour.


The long waits to cross the border also are driving workers to leave farmwork, while the increased presence of Border Patrol agents has scared some already in the U.S. away from Arizona.

In the past, migrant farmworkers, including many undocumented immigrants who get jobs with fake papers, followed the harvest from California to Arizona and back. Rather than risk arrest passing through Border Patrol checkpoints that ring Yuma, many migrants avoid the state.

"In the past, there were a lot of undocumented doing this work, but now there is so much border enforcement," said Glafira Sanchez, a lettuce crew foreman for Valley Pride, a vegetable harvester in Yuma.

Arizona Republic, Nov 21, 2006

While $8.50 an hour with the possibility to make $12 to $14 might not be enough to attract some native workers to the fields, one would certainly think that it would entice at least a few. The pay is certainly better than that offered by the nation's largest private employer, Walmart.

With over 1 million US employees, Walmart is the biggest employer in twenty-five states. Yet, it only pays an average wage of $8.23 an hour to sales associates, it's most common job classification, and $7.92 to cashiers, the second largest group of employees in the company. Given the company's policy to limit full time employees to a 34 hour workweek, the average associate makes $14,221 a year; a cashier makes $13,733 - far bellow the Federal poverty level for a family of four.

Between its low wages and lack of the company benefits, the average Walmart also costs the taxpayers $420,750 annually for such things as subsidized school lunches, food stamps, housing credits, tax credits, energy assistance, and health care. It's safe to say that its employees are not reaping the benefits of Walmart's preeminent position as a leading force in the global economy.

So why aren't enterprising Walmart cashiers from all over the southwest heading to Yuma for the possibility to earn nearly twice what they're making now? Even the base pay for a 40-hour workweek would translate into a 25.9 % raise for the average cashier.

Certainly, the simple "supply and demand" arguments of those like Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies would dictate that the rising wages in Yuma's lettuce fields should be attracting native workers by the droves. He speculated so much in a 2004 article in the National Review when he wrote, "If the supply of foreign workers were to dry up (say, through actually enforcing the immigration law, for starters), employers would respond to this new, tighter, labor market … they would offer higher wages, increased benefits, and improved working conditions, so as to recruit and retain people from the remaining pool of workers."

So how come none of the 300,000 odd cashiers and sales associates at Walmart are not standing in Rick Rademacher's fields right now?

The flippant answer would be; "Because THESE ARE the jobs Americans won't do." … But the real answer is of course more complex than that.

It's not only the physical nature of the job that prevents native workers from taking to the fields, since native workers are willing to take many physically demanding jobs for relatively low wages. Demographics might play a role. Agricultural work is labor intensive but takes place in rural areas not always near enough to population centers to tap into that workforce. Also, by its very nature, the work is seasonal and temporary, forcing the workforce to either migrate or find other work in the off season.

Whatever the reason, it doesn't matter to growers throughout the country who have been reporting labor shortages since last summer. Reports from around the country of fruit and vegetables rotting in the fields are not uncommon and the situation worsens with each growing period.

Of course Krikorian would argue that growers simply have not increased wages high enough yet to attract native workers.

Anti-immigration advocates like Krikorian and Lou Dobbs love to quote from a study done by Iowa State University titled "How Much Is that Tomato in the Window?" that stated that labor accounts for only 10% of the average cost for a head of lettuce and that the elimination of all undocumented workers would only increase produce prices by about 6%. They claim that given these numbers growers could easily double the wages paid to most workers with little real effect to US consumers. They argue that this small price to pay to eliminate undocumented workers, and a burden they'd be more than willing to bear.

But the real world doesn't work that way.. And Rademacher has an answer for those who say they wouldn't mind paying 5 of 10 cents more for a head of lettuce.

"We have to offer more to get the workers, but we try to keep our costs in line, too," he says. "If we set the price [of vegetables] too high, one of our competitors will get the business, or the markets will get the vegetables from out of the country."

The vegetable and fruit businesses are businesses of scale, with profits and losses made in small individual increments, nothing is bought or sold in single units. It's traded in cases, bushels, pallets, truckloads, or shipping containers. Here is where a 6% increases here and a 10cent a unit increase there starts to add up. Today the going price for Mr Rademacher's iceberg lettuce in a major East Coast produce terminal like New York or Boston is about $15 a case of 24 heads. A 6% increase would raise that price nearly one dollar. Large scale food distributors like Walmart can buy hundreds if not thousands of cases a day. Given the ready availability of foreign produce, how long would they be willing to absorb the added costs? More importantly … will the American people really be willing to pay extra for US produce when cheap foreign produce is available? From experience it certainly doesn't look like it.

Despite all the jingoistic rhetoric, and "Buy American" or "Look for the Union Label" campaigns, the American people continually flock the very same Walmarts that pay workers below poverty level wages to load up Levis made in China by workers making 31 cents an hour and strawberries picked in Guatemala for 90 cents a day. All just to save a few cents here or there. They have been complicent in the outsourcing of whole sectors of the economy in order to have "everyday low prices." It's easy for Lou Dobbs to pronounce that the American people would pay a nickel or a dime more for a head of lettuce for the chance to remove the "scourge of illegal aliens", but experience tells us something different.

The growers are well aware of this fact. They deal every day with trying to supply cost-cutting giants like Walmart looking for the lowest prices available on the one hand, while completing with Mexican, South and Central American, and other foreign growers trying to figure out ways to more effectively ship their goods to US markets on the other.

If US workers won't take the jobs done by immigrants for $8.50, $12 or $14 an hour when they're currently making $7.92, what in fact is the magic number? $18 an hour - $22? I'd like, just for once, to have Lou Dobbs or Tom Tancredo answer that question. At what point will native workers actually pack their bags and head off to the fields?

The anti-immigration camp is right when they say "There is no job Americans won't do for the right price," John McCain learned that the hard way when he claimed no one would pick lettuce for $50 an hour and thousands volunteered for the job. But at $50 an hour how long do you think it would take before the Walmarts of the world were on the phone ordering up truckloads of lettuce from Mexico or other countries.

The question should be "Are there jobs Americans won't do for a 'reasonable' price given our current globalized economy ... The answer to that question is obviously yes.

And that's the problem no one seems to want to address.

Until such time as the anti-immigration camp starts to talk about solutions to the real problems facing American workers - when they demand that Walmart stop paying poverty wages as it suckles on the teat of government social programs, and call for the unionization of all workers - those in the fields and meatpacking plants as well as those behind the counters of Walmart ...When they demand that the government start to enforce labor and safety regulations with the same new-found zeal reserved for chasing down immigrants, or force their legislators to re-negotiate trade agreements that have devastated workers on a global scale and fostered a wave of economic migration of epic proportions. ... When they stop demanding the cheapest goods available without regard for how they were produced and think of the global ramifications of their selfish disposable lifestyles ... then, and only then, might there actually be "no job Americans won't do."

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