Going into labor: On immigration reform and agriculture

The Ethicurean is honored to be able to publish this guest post by Elanor Starmer, a new acquaintance.

A New Hampshire native who acquired intimate knowledge of integrated pest management when her house was infested with the ladybugs used to fight aphids on her next-door neighbor’s organic farm, Elanor recently completed an MA in law and diplomacy and an MS in agriculture, food, and environmental policy at Tufts University. She has worked in Washington on human rights and the impact of trade liberalization on small farmers and consulted with the Inter-American Institute for Agricultural Cooperation in El Salvador. Currently, she is consulting with several groups about how U.S. farm policy is driving industrialization in U.S. livestock production.


Photo: Prospective Braceros wait to hear the explanation of their U.S. guest-farm-worker contract at a soccer stadium in Mexico City, 1942. (UC Regents archives)

It’s a big week in the immigration world. On Monday, the Senate voted to start debate on a controversial immigration reform law that would give the estimated 12 million undocumented workers currently residing in the United States a shot at legal citizenship. It would also create what’s called a “guest worker program” to bring in 400,000 to 600,000 temporary workers in sectors where there’s a shortage of U.S. labor. That includes — you guessed it — U.S. farm fields, packing plants, and slaughter facilities, where Congress admits even migrant laborers probably won’t want to work once they gain legal status (and where Colorado has recently proposed to use prison labor to deal with a shortage of migrant workers).

I have an annoying tendency to try to relate everything that happens anywhere to food, but in this case, the link is actually pretty clear. The conservative Center for Immigration Studies estimated that between 2002 and 2004, over 2 million migrants entered the United States, one-third of them to seek employment on U.S. farms. Particularly in states such as California and Florida, where fragile crops for the fresh market must be picked by hand, migrant labor is a mainstay. That means that to the extent this immigration reform law affects migrant labor — and it will — it has big implications for the structure of our food system. For me, the most pressing question is whether it will do anything to address the wretched working conditions migrant laborers must endure in food and agricultural jobs (conditions that unfortunately extend even to many organic farms).

Despite our president’s insistence to the contrary, I find that history is often a useful source of guidance on present-day issues. In this case, history suggests that the proposed reforms will be good for the folks who get legal status (and man, do they deserve it), but not so good for guest workers. In the “continuing to fair poorly” category will be undocumented migrants from Latin America and Mexico and members of the U.S. farm labor movement.

bracero_woman.jpg Quick! The history of U.S. policy on farm labor in 60 seconds. During and after World War II, U.S. workers shift out of farming and into industrial jobs. Agricultural producers mobilize to persuade the government to help find workers. In 1951, Congress passes a law creating the Bracero guestworker program, which allows producers to “import” Mexican workers legally for seasonal jobs and send them home afterward. (Bracero means “farm worker.”) In addition to tying migrants to one employer, Bracero contracts establish standards for housing, pay, and the guarantee of work that are lower than those applied to U.S. workers. The President’s Commission on Migratory Labor provides this assessment of the situation in a 1951 report: “We depend on misfortune to build up our force of migratory workers, and when the supply is low because there is not enough misfortune at home, we rely on misfortune abroad to replenish the supply.”

Honesty in government — a real breath of fresh air, no?

Fast-forward to the 1960s. The Bracero Program has become the focal point for organizing by the United Farm Workers (UFW) union, which charges that it undermines domestic labor conditions and drives down wages industry-wide. The opposition kills the program in 1964, and the farm labor market tightens. The UFW launches campaigns against the use of undocumented workers as strike-breakers and wins concessions for unionized workers requiring rest periods, clean drinking water, and the provision and use of protective clothing during pesticide application. By 1973, the UFW represents 67,000 workers on California farms producing grapes, lettuce, strawberries, and other specialty crops.

bracero_pick.jpg But the UFW’s heyday is short. The networks established during the Bracero era between communities in Mexico and the United States are strong, economies in Mexico and Central America are weak, and the rate of undocumented migration surges. UFW wage strikes in the late ’70s and early ‘80s don’t gain many friends among producers, who turn to the growing pool of undocumented workers instead. By 1983, the number of UFW contracts has dropped from a high of 180 to fewer than 20.

In the ’80s, a weakened UFW decides to switch gears and help undocumented workers become legal immigrants so they can join and support the union. They’re stymied by two factors: first, employers use the threat of job termination to keep workers from even talking to the union, and second, when workers do manage to gain legal status, they typically leave the farm sector for better-paying positions in other industries. They’re replaced by newly arrived undocumented migrants — and the UFW is back to where it started.

And that brings us to today. With the enforcement of labor standards weaker than it’s been in years, a strong farm labor movement is badly needed. But that’s pretty much not happening (recent awesome successes of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers notwithstanding).

OK, that was more like three minutes. Here’s what I take from the history lesson that’s relevant to this week’s immigration debate:

  1. Guestworker programs do nothing to address poor working conditions for U.S. farm and food workers, and could in fact degrade them. The Bracero program was widely credited for worsening conditions across the industry in the 1950s and ‘60s. Current policies that allow businesses to “import” workers for seasonal labor, such as the H2-A visa program, exempt these workers from important protections afforded by the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act. I don’t know about you, but I think the creation of a separate class of workers not covered by standard labor rights and wage laws is pretty sketchy.
  2. Unions could improve conditions, but it’s really hard to unionize when there’s an unending stream of undocumented workers to fill jobs. That means that if we want to see fairer labor conditions at home, the conditions that drive migrants to migrate need to be addressed too.
  3. The legalization of workers is a moral imperative. That said, it may not solve the problem of worker exploitation in agriculture, so other efforts will be necessary as well.

So what can we do? The good news is that there are lots of pressure points; pick your favorite. Groups like Farmworker Justice, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the National Council of La Raza have taken the lead in pressing for stronger and fairer labor and immigration policies. They’ll influence this and future debates. We can also take important steps in our communities by supporting producers and organizations who are making workers’ rights a top priority for farm businesses (see some inspiring work by the Domestic Fair Trade dialogue, the upper Midwest’s Local Fair Trade Network , and California’s Swanton Berry Farm).

There’s another struggle in need of support that unfortunately won’t be touched this week in Washington. As the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has shown, we can’t hope to address low wages and poor working conditions in agriculture unless we also address the behavior of powerful buyers. Agricultural processors and retailers have grown larger in recent years and have driven down the wholesale prices offered to producers: between 1990 and 2000, the share of the retail price of tomatoes that went to producers shrank from 41% to 25%. In turn, producers squeeze workers in order to stay in business. Since 1978, real farm worker wages have decreased by 65%.

That means that unless the market power of processors and retailers is curbed, workers and producers are in a pickle. See Oxfam America’s labor rights campaign and the Agribusiness Accountability Initiative for information on making processing and retail markets more fair, and the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture for some great 2007 Farm Bill proposals that would help address these issues in contract markets (where producers raise crops and livestock under contract for packers and processors).

I was going to end with a wise adage from my mom about the importance of fairness, until I realized that her line to me as a child was “Honey, the world’s not fair.” I believe my response then was “Well, it should be!”

I guess nothing’s changed.

Photos of Mexican carrot picker in Edinburgh, Texas, and California farm sign from Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection.

One Responseto “Going into labor: On immigration reform and agriculture”

  1. Jerry says:

    Thanks. I love thumbnail history lessons.