From DallasNews.com, 25 Oct 2011.
California farmers suffered a severe labor shock in the early 1960s when the government ended a program that guaranteed cheap field hands from Mexico. And then something remarkable happened. The agricultural industry introduced all kinds of technological efficiencies. More astonishing still, working conditions and wages for those who toiled in the fields improved, even if just briefly.
The lessons from California are worth noting today, 50 years later, because of the labor crisis faced by farmers in the South, where well-publicized crackdowns on illegal immigrants have depleted the workforce. In Georgia, 11,000 jobs went unfilled during the critical spring harvest. The decline in production meant a loss of $75 million, according to the University of Georgia.
Missing from these dire calculations is a basic data point: the hourly wage of farmworkers in the Peach State. Georgia growers, it turns out, appear to pay their farmhands far less than anyone else in the $60 billion-a-year fruit and vegetable industry. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, a farmworker in eastern Georgia earns $8.15 an hour. That is $1.50 below the national average and considerably less than farmworkers earn in other states.
One of the truisms of the agricultural industry is that workers are in short supply during economic booms and plentiful during busts. In other words, these are good times for growers. In Washington state, where the median wage for farmworkers is $12, there appears to be no shortage of laborers.
The crisis in Georgia is self-inflicted, a product of an industry that is addicted to cheap labor. At least half of all workers in agriculture are here illegally, and estimates range as high as seven out of every 10. In the Southeast, where large-scale immigration is relatively recent, the concentration of illegal workers is likely very high, given migration patterns. Mostly male, Mexican and mobile, this workforce flees in droves at the first sign of enforcement.
In Georgia, the public policy debate is over expanding the farm labor pool. No grower, however, is offering the kinds of wages earned by apple pickers in Washington. Instead, farmers disparage the American worker for not having the fortitude to work in the fields.
Don’t feel sorry for Georgia’s farmers. In agriculture, it is always the farmworkers who are on the short end of the deal, often literally. In Mexican migrant lore, the most infamous tool was known as the short hoe. It was 12 to 18 inches long, which offered sugar beets maximum protection during harvest. The migrant workers who wielded it spent the day stooped over — the very definition of backbreaking labor. It was only when this docile workforce was in short supply that the short hoe mercifully disappeared.
2010 average hourly wage, farmworkers and laborers
- National: $9.64
- East Georgia: $8.15
- Northern California: $9.11
- Central Washington: $15.27
- Western Colorado: $15.84
Bureau of Labor Statistics