Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The political economy of California agriculture

Trump’s immigration crackdown is supposed to help U.S. citizens. For California farmers, it’s worsening a desperate labor shortage.
By Natalie Kitroeff and Geoffrey Mohan for the Los Angeles Times, March 17, 2017
[….] The flow of labor began drying up when President Obama tightened the border. Now President Trump is promising to deport more people, raid more companies and build a wall on the southern border. That has made California farms a proving ground for the Trump team’s theory that by cutting off the flow of immigrants they will free up more jobs for American-born workers and push up their wages. So far, the results aren’t encouraging for farmers or domestic workers.
Farmers are being forced to make difficult choices about whether to abandon some of the state’s hallmark fruits and vegetables, move operations abroad, import workers under a special visa or replace them altogether with machines. Growers who can afford it have already begun raising worker pay well beyond minimum wage. Wages for crop production in California increased by 13% from 2010 to 2015, twice as fast as average pay in the state, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis of data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Today, farmworkers in the state earn about $30,000 a year if they work full time — about half the overall average pay in California. Most work fewer hours. Some farmers are even giving laborers benefits normally reserved for white-collar professionals, like 401(k) plans, health insurance, subsidized housing and profit-sharing bonuses. Full-timers at Silverado Farming, for example, get most of those sweeteners, plus 10 paid vacation days, eight paid holidays, and can earn their hourly rate to take English classes.
But the raises and new perks have not tempted native-born Americans to leave their day jobs for the fields. Nine in 10 agriculture workers in California are still foreign born, and more than half are undocumented, according to a federal survey. [….]
‘The law of supply and demand doesn’t stop being true just because you’re talking about people,’ says George Borjas, a Harvard economist and prominent foe of unfettered immigration. ‘[Farmers] have had an almost endless supply of low-skill workers for a long time, and now they are finding it difficult to transition to a situation where they don’t.’
Borjas believes the ones who reap the rewards of immigration are employers — not just farmers, but restaurant owners and well-to-do homeowners who hire landscapers and housekeepers. The people who suffer most are American workers, who contend with more competition for jobs and lower pay.
But Silverado, the farm labor contracting company in Napa, has never had a white, American-born person take an entry-level gig, even after the company increased hourly wages to $4 above the minimum. And Silverado is far from unique.
U.S. workers filled just 2% of a sample of farm labor vacancies advertised in 1996, according to a report published by the Labor Department’s office of inspector general. ‘I don’t think anybody would dispute that that’s roughly the way it is now’ as well, says Philip Martin, an economist at UC Davis and one of the country’s leading experts on agriculture. [….]
The full article, with wonderful photographs, is here.

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