Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Rotting Crops, Prisoners and Inmates

Without access to an adequate workforce, squash and other fast growing crops are left to rot in the fields. Its direct consequences moreover span to include economic distress and potential forfeiture of farming enterprises for owner operators. A recent University of Georgia report underscores a projected loss for the State's agricultural sector of $391 million to this year's production of fruits and vegetables. Aside from the losses and economic threat to owner operators, further losses also extend to consumers who relish the Vidalia onions and cucumbers that are so closely linked to the State's agricultural identity.



Nor is Georgia is alone but a severe labor shortage in Alabama is also witnessing extreme economic losses in the millions to the agricultural sector. Before the violins come out with sad musical notes, fault lies on both states and demonstrate the proven trajectory that follows when heinous narrow sighted legislation is adopted.



Specifically, both states adopted extreme anti-immigration legislation. When a federal court recently upheld most provisions of the Alabama law, the governor boasted the State had "...the strongest immigration law in the country." the Governor's boasting stems from the legislation that inter alia permits state and local police to "ask" for immigration papers during routine traffic stops, renders most contracts with undocumented individuals unenforceable, and "requiring schools to ascertain the immigration status of children at registration time." He did not however reconcile federal preemption law nor all those other federal values that promote a unified immigration system across the country. Both of which are defeating such bills as attempted in yet other states.




Immediately following the ruling whether documented or not innumerable laborers left the states. In Alabama for example, they left everything behind and in some instances selling their fully furnished mobile homes for a thousand dollars or less. They also took with them the economic contributions they make to the states that run from tax dollars to generating new business enterprises. Or in this instance the sought after labor that would have in the alternative saved those fields of bounty.



Nor can one fault them for leaving. Why? Its no secret that racial profiling increases when an individual appears "foreign sounding" or "foreign looking." It also appears its time for many of us to start carrying passports when traveling through either Alabama or Georgia.



In considering the complaints of owner operators over their distress of laborers leaving Georgia, John McMillian, Commissioner of the State's Department of Agriculture and Industries is turning to inmates through work release programs. McMillian is not suggesting something new and transformative. Agriculture for example has employed prisoners as laborers such as in the Midwest during World War II when German POWs worked on farms harvesting regional crops.


Other states have also employed inmates but the practice (aside from slave labor charges) is recognized as a short-term fix to a sector in dire need of rehabitation when contemplating workforce needs. Inmate labor for example is neither as reliable nor productive as migrant workers. In giving the Commissioner the benefit of the doubt this quick fix moreover fails any long term planning or neglects the complexities inherent in providing safe and reasonable terms and conditions of employment to attact a talented and able workforce.



From such restrictive state driven immigration "laws" an opportunity nonetheless emerges. Specifically promoting federal reform that fundamentally does not injure farm workers as well as the nation as a whole. If workers are seeking entry into the nation, a better response would be to engage in beneficial immigration reform at the federal level. Such reform could provide an opportunity to promulgate and adopt however a fairer working arrangement for laborers than current existing federal law. At a base level any new legislation specific to both laborers from foreign nations and domestic would and should be tethered to improved terms and conditions of employment, a fair labor rate, and safe housing for workers. In sum basic economic theory informs that in times of shortages prices escalate. We should expect the same when attracting a workforce fundamental to the sector and with causal relationships to keeping the sector safe from economic ruin.

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