Guest Worker Program, Labor, Wages

Harvest Dilemma Spotlights Immigrant Labor Crisis

From, “Harvest dilemma spotlights immigrant labor crisis” 25 Nov 2011.

Washington apple farmers are so desperate for pickers, one grower hired inmates from a minimum-security state prison at $22 an hour to help with the harvest.

The dilemma demonstrates just how messed up this nation’s immigration policies are, and how some unemployed people would rather sit on their backsides than put in a day’s work at grueling manual labor.

Gov. Chris Gregoire drew the public spotlight to the farm labor shortage issue when she said, “We’re sitting on the potential of having the third-largest (apple) crop, at around 105 million boxes, and we can’t get them picked.”

The governor gave her permission for 105 inmates of the Olympic Corrections Center in Forks to harvest the high-value crop of Jazz apples for the Wenatchee-based McDougal and Sons company. The inmates were able to pick about 1,000 bins of apples in the 200-acre orchard in a matter of a few days.

Gregoire said it would take 3,000 to 4,000 additional workers to bring in the full crop across the state. Apples are a $1.5 billion industry for this state.

The Grant County grower paid the state Department of Corrections $22 an hour for each inmate, but most of that money went toward the costs for correction officers to keep tabs on the laborers, and for their food, transportation, housing and other costs. State officials said each inmate would likely receive between $1 and $2 per hour for his work after mandatory payments for taxes, child support, crime victim compensation, incarceration and other costs were deducted.

The reason for the labor shortage is obvious.

Officials estimate that three-quarters of the seasonal workers in Washington state are illegal immigrants. And they say that many would-be workers are staying away because they fear they’ll be detained and deported. It’s a problem that is not unique to Washington state and one crying out for a federal solution.

The fact is, immigration reform has been on the agenda in Congress for years, but sharp divisions over amnesty for illegal immigrants and other issues have resulted in – surprise – a legislative logjam.

It’s imperative that Congress take up this issue and adopt a reasonable immigration policy. It’s a key to an economic rebound.

Meanwhile, Gregoire said, “Let’s be honest with each other. If Congress doesn’t act, we’re going to have to go to some sort of extraordinary solutions.”

Her solution was allowing 105 of the 400 inmates at Forks to pick apples in Eastern Washington.

Using inmates as laborers is not a new concept. In Colorado, prisoners have been used for fish farming. Maryland prisoners have helped make flags. In Georgia, prisoners have helped clean foreclosed houses. And in New York, prisoners have helped pick up the garbage.

But let’s not kid ourselves, picking apples is hard, hard work.

A 42-year-old out-of-work home remodeling employee from Seattle told the Seattle Times he pawned his tools and guitar to get to Eastern Washington to join in the harvest. It was, he said, “the hardest work I’ve ever done.”

The Times said, “A popular story they hear in response is about the ‘two crazy Canadians’ who drove to Brewster, Okanogan County, not far from the Canadian border, looking for field work. They picked three bins the first day … one bin the second and said, ‘we’re outta here!’ after that.”

The hard work might explain why we don’t see more state residents on unemployment taking advantage of the picker shortage. One orchardist told the Seattle Times that of the 149 people referred to him earlier in the season by the state’s unemployment office, half showed up on the first day, a quarter on the second day. But after weeks of picking, only five of the original 149 referrals were still up the ladders picking the apples.

Using prison labor was an innovative approach by Gov. Gregoire. But let’s face it, employing prisoners to harvest Washington crops is not a good solution to a long-term problem.

A comprehensive, balanced immigration policy at the national level that focuses on national security, human rights and the pivotal role immigrants play in agriculture and other industries is the proper solution.

As Dan Newhouse, director of the state Department of Agriculture, told the Times, “We need to find a way to allow workers from Mexico to come and go legally. We’ve got too much riding on this.”

Source:, “Harvest dilemma spotlights immigrant labor crisis” 25 Nov 2011.


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