The Politics of Farm Labor

Last time, I looked at how trade policy helped the avocado become one of the hottest fruits in the produce section. One problem with the surging demand for avocados in recent years is that they’re not exactly easy to harvest. Every single avocado has to be picked off of a tree by hand. Tree-shaking machines, like those used for harvesting almonds and cherries, don’t work for avocados because even on the same tree, avocados mature at different rates.

Another reason why mechanical picking isn’t an option has to do with basic physics – unlike almonds or cherries, avocados are fairly substantial. When a heavy fruit drops 15 to 30 feet – the height of most avocado trees – it will bruise, which is great for guacamole but not for getting avocados to the market unscathed.

A tree-shaking machine: Good for nuts, not for avocados.

Increased demand, combined with the labor-intensive nature of avocado harvesting, can make it difficult for producers to find enough people to bring their crop in. According to a 2017 survey from the California Farm Bureau, 69 percent of growers with seasonal workforces have reported employee shortages, with the shortages being most acute for tree fruits (like avocados). Growers also said that the overall skill level of their workforce has become an issue, resulting in increased harvesting time and, in some instances, crops not being fully harvested. Nearly half of the growers surveyed said they’ve been offering higher wages, benefits, or other incentives in an attempt to attract a better skilled, more motivated workforce.[1]

The workforce that harvests avocados, along with every other seasonal crop, is overwhelmingly immigrant-based. According the Department of Labor, 80 percent of hired farm workers are Hispanic and only 31 percent are U.S. citizens. Mexico is far and away the main supplier of immigrant labor – 68 percent of all hired farm workers in the U.S. were born in Mexico.[2]  Only 21 percent are permanent legal residents, and just 53 percent have work authorization.[3] In other words, nearly half of the entire agricultural workforce is made up of undocumented immigrants.

Starting pay for workers is typically around $12 – $13 per hour for long days of back-breaking labor. They rarely receive any benefits, and often live in squalid conditions throughout the harvest season. There are over a million of these jobs in the U.S., but the combination of low pay, minimal benefits, and harsh working conditions makes agricultural labor extremely unattractive to most Americans. As one grower put it, “There’s no way that we can take care of and pick our crop without immigrant labor.”[4]

picking avocados – like most agricultural labor – is not something American workers willingly do

Some people don’t buy this, arguing that when the economy gets bad and there are few jobs to be found, American citizens will gladly take agricultural jobs. The problem, the argument goes, is that all the immigrant labor locks U.S. workers out of the farm labor market.

A case study using 2011 data from the North Carolina Growers Association examined this claim. That year – a year in which unemployment in North Carolina was hovering around 10 percent – the Association posted 6,500 farm job listings. At that level of unemployment (a level that was generally even higher in the rural areas where most of the jobs were based) you’d think that there would be plenty of interest from unemployed North Carolinians, but that wasn’t the case: Only 268 U.S. citizens even bothered to apply. 245 of them were hired (91 percent), but only 163 showed up for the first day of work. A month later, half of them had quit. By the end of the season, there were only seven left – a dropout rate of 95.5 percent. The dropout rate for Mexican workers? 10 percent.[5] As the authors of the study concluded, “No matter how bad the economy becomes, native workers do not take farm jobs.”

The most common type of work permit for seasonal farm laborers is an H-2A visa, with over 134,000 issued in 2016.[6] The H-2A program was created in 1986 as a way for businesses to temporarily bring in immigrant agricultural labor for the season. Businesses that want to employ H-2A visa workers first have to demonstrate that they’ve repeatedly tried and failed to attract full-time legal U.S. residents for the jobs they’re hoping to fill. If they can do that (and it’s generally not too hard), they have to deal with multiple state and federal agencies as well as the U.S. embassy of the immigrant employees. Employers also have to find the workers, arrange for their transportation to and from their home country, provide them with meals and housing, and ensure they have a way to get back and forth to work.

So many businesses have struggled with navigating this process that a cottage industry of H-2A visa advisors has sprung up. When I talked with one of these advisors, I asked her if the byzantine and confusing nature of the process might push producers – especially smaller producers – into hiring undocumented workers. “I think that happens all the time,” she said. “That’s what the majority of employers are doing.” In addition, she pointed out that businesses that try to do the right thing and go through the H-2A program open themselves up to Department of Labor investigations. Ironically, farms hiring undocumented laborers are often more insulated from investigation, because they fly under the radar with no employment paper trail on file with the federal government.[7]

A workforce made up largely of immigrants, most of whom are poorly educated with little to no English language skills, is a workforce tailor-made for exploitation. Undocumented workers seldom speak out due to fears of deportation, and even those with H-2A visas are at risk, because their residency in the United States is tied to their employer – if they’re fired, they can’t look for another job – they’re sent home (or they remain in the country illegally).

Several independent investigations have found rampant exploitation of immigrant farm workers. Common abuses include withholding pay, not paying overtime, intentionally under-recording time worked, confiscation of worker visas, prohibiting workers from leaving the farm, and even widespread intimidation, harassment, and sexual abuse. The federal government has investigated too. In 2015 the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that from 2009 – 2013, 866 H-2A visa employers were in violation of one or more legally mandated worker protections, the vast majority of which related to worker pay. The report also found that violations may be under-reported because workers fear retaliation, deportation, and blacklisting.[8]

Technically, businesses that violate immigrant farm worker rights can be banned from the H-2A visa program for a period of time. But in reality this rarely happens because the statute of limitations is only two years. That’s not two years from the time between an alleged violation and when a complaint is filed, but two years between the violation and the conclusion of a Department of Labor investigation. According to the GAO, the median length of investigations conducted from 2009 – 2014 was 24 months. In other words, half of all investigations went on longer than the statute of limitations, meaning that even if violations were found, violators couldn’t be banned from the program.

Even if a business is debarred from the H-2A visa program, that doesn’t necessarily stop them from bringing in immigrant workers. Debarred businesses can simply make small changes to their name and reapply. You might think that this wouldn’t work, because after all, you can change the name of your farm but you can’t just move it down the road. The problem is that while the Department of Labor does check new H-2A visa applications against a ‘debarred list’, the automatic check only includes business names, not addresses.

If employment of undocumented workers is rampant in agriculture, why hasn’t the government cracked down? One reason is that it can be difficult to prove that an employer knowingly hired an undocumented worker. Employers are required to ‘check papers’, but thanks to a thriving fake immigration document business, that’s not much of a barrier. Of course the employers know that many of these documents are bogus, but it’s in their economic interest to not look too closely.

All employers have access to a federal system called E-Verify, which allows them to check job applicant documents against government records. But, two decades after its release, E-Verify remains voluntary in 41 states. And in the nine states that do mandate it, enforcement ranges from spotty to nearly nonexistent.

President Trump has called on Congress to make E-Verify mandatory nationwide, and there was initially talk of including a mandatory E-Verify provision in legislation intended to replace President Obama’s executive order on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). But as of late October, Senate negotiators ruled out making E-Verify mandatory. While there’s some Congressional support for mandatory E-Verify, there’s also bipartisan opposition. Many groups on the left voice concerns about privacy and data errors, while some on the right view E-Verify as a further intrusion ‘Big Brother’ federal government on businesses.

And then there’s the elephant in the room: Underpaid, exploited immigrant workers keep costs way down. The federal government could absolutely enact immigrant labor reform that would crack down on hiring of undocumented workers and dramatically improve the lives of agricultural workers in the country legally. But providing workers with decent wages and working conditions would impose major costs on businesses, who would of course pass most of those costs along to American consumers. Sure, Americans say they care about immigrant labor abuse (at least, most Americans do), but do they care enough to pay $3 for an avocado?

_______________

[1] “Results of Ag Labor Survey Released | California Avocado Commission,” accessed October 31, 2017, http://www.californiaavocadogrowers.com/articles/results-ag-labor-survey-released.

[2] United States Department of Labor, “Findings from the National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS) 2013-2014,” accessed October 31, 2017, https://www.doleta.gov/naws/pages/research/docs/NAWS_Research_Report_12.pdf.

[3] United States Department of Labor.

[4] “California’s Undocumented Workers Help the Economy Grow – but May Pay the Cost,” Public Radio International, accessed October 31, 2017, https://www.pri.org/stories/2017-03-06/californias-undocumented-workers-help-grow-economy-theres-cost.

[5] Michael A. Clemens, “International Harvest: A Case Study of How Foreign Workers Help American Farms Grow Crops – and the Economy,” 2013.

[6] “Unable to Fill Jobs, Companies Look to Foreign Visa Workers to Fill Void,” The North Bay Business Journal, July 10, 2017, http://www.northbaybusinessjournal.com/northbay/sonomacounty/7184851-181/visa-h2a-wine-labor-tigh.

[7] name withheld, Personal interview with H-2A Visa Advisor (name withheld at request of interviewee), November 2, 2017.

[8] U.S. Government Accountability Office, “H-2A and H-2B Visa Programs: Increased Protections Needed for Foreign Workers [Reissued on May 30, 2017],” no. GAO-15-154 (May 30, 2017), https://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-15-154.

 

 

 

How Safe Is Your Food?

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Mike talks with Dan Flynn, Editor in Chief of Food Safety News about the Food Safety Modernization Act, whether FDA inspections are tough enough, if regulations are unfair to smaller farms, and the state of food safety regulation in the Trump administration.

Food Safety News on Twitter

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Avocado Politics

(This is the first in what I hope will be a long series of food politics posts. I hope you enjoy it, and that you’ll let me know what you think. I’ve never tried writing what’s essentially a first draft of a book in blog form, and I’m hoping your feedback will make what I feel is a fascinating topic as interesting to you as it is to me. You can contact me directly at mike@politicsguys.com. Thanks! – Mike)

I eat avocados nearly every single day. Mostly in salads, but I make a mean avocado-chocolate-peanut butter smoothie too. Sometimes I’ll just slice one up, add hot sauce, and enjoy. It’s hard for me to believe now, but most of my life was largely avocado-free. That’s not because I was a weird, sheltered kid (well, I was definitely weird, but that’s another story) – it’s because until not all that long ago, avocados were practically an exotic fruit to most Americans, including me.

Here’s what I mean: In 2000, U.S. avocado consumption averaged just over two pounds per person – about where cauliflower is today.[1] [2] Since then, consumption has shot up – in 2016 it hit 7.1 pounds per person, a 255 percent increase. That’s even more impressive when you consider that the U.S. has added nearly 41 million people during that period.

These numbers put avocados squarely in the produce mainstream, right up there with pineapples (7 pounds per person) strawberries (7.8 pounds), and grapes (7.8 pounds).[3]  And as you might expect, all this consumption is generating a lot of revenue – nearly $2 billion in 2016, according to the Hass Avocado Board.[4]

So how did avocados go from the fruit equivalent of cauliflower to a produce superstar? The answer has a lot to do with politics.

The story starts over a century ago. In 1914 the U.S. government banned importation of all Mexican avocados. They did it because American growers claimed that Mexican avocados were infested with avocado weevils. But according to the Mexicans that was just an excuse to shut out foreign competition.

an avocado weevil (nasty looking thing, isn’t it?)

I don’t know if the U.S. was facing an imminent avocado weevil epidemic in 1914 but I have my doubts. Two things I am sure of are, one, there was no great avocado weevil infestation of 1915, and two, the ban on Mexican avocados created a problem for American avocado lovers.

California, and to a much lesser extent Florida, are the only states in the continental U.S. that can successfully grow avocado trees on a large scale. But even sunny California, which produces around 85 percent of all domestically grown avocados, doesn’t have a climate that allows for  year-round avocado growing, which creates a natural limit to avocado production.[5] And so once the ban went into effect, Americans’ access to avocados was seriously limited.

That’s more or less where things stood until 1993, when the United States Senate ratified the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The treaty was designed to eliminate trade barriers between the United States, Mexico, and Canada, create jobs, and enhance economic growth throughout the continent. While it’s unlikely that avocados were a main topic of debate among the negotiators (unless someone brought in some really good guacamole for a snack break) the passage of NAFTA had a dramatic effect on the avocado market in the United States.

It took a few years of post-NAFTA wrangling, and some threats from the Mexican government about putting restrictions on U.S. grain imports into Mexico, but in 1997 the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) got on the free (or at least freer) trade bandwagon and loosened up their restrictions, ruling that avocados grown in Mexico’s Michoacan region could be imported into the United States as long as they met USDA requirements.

Avocado growers in California, who at the time produced about 90 percent of all avocados eaten in the United States, reacted just about how you’d expect any monopolist to react. They argued that there was still a grave threat from Mexican pests, and raised concerns that cheap imports would somehow lead to the rise of a dangerous, unregulated ‘black market’ in avocados. (Which, I know, might sound crazy. On the other hand, there are some pretty bizarre black markets, like the one for maple syrup.)

The USDA decided to move slowly in response to the protests from domestic growers. At first, they only allowed Mexican avocados into 19 states in the Northeast and Midwest (far away from U.S. avocado growing operations) and only from November through February, when weather forced U.S. production to shut down. Since then, the restrictions have been repeatedly relaxed, with Michoacan avocados gaining full access to the entire U.S. market year-round in 2007.

Tearing down the avocado wall between the United States and Mexico has allowed Mexico to dominate the U.S. avocado market – in 2016, Mexican imports made up over 80 percent of the U.S. supply. You might think that this would have hurt US avocado production, but just the opposite has happened. In the 10 years that Mexican avocados have had unfettered access to the US market, US production has increased by an average of 29 percent per year. In the decade before that, the average increase was only three percent. It’s the same story if you look at the overall value of domestic avocado production (the number of tons of avocados produced in the U.S. multiplied by the price per ton).  Since 2007 it’s gone up an average of 22 percent per year, whereas from 1997 – 2006 the average increase was zero percent.[6]

All those avocados don’t grow and harvest themselves. Next week, I’ll take a look at the politics of agricultural labor in the United States, examining things like whether immigrants are taking farm jobs from Americans, if government does enough to protect immigrant laborers, why agricultural producers so often turn to illegal immigrant labor, and lots more.

____________________

[1] Statista, “U.S. Fresh Avocados Consumption per Capita, 2015 | Statistic,” Statista, accessed October 26, 2017, https://www.statista.com/statistics/257192/per-capita-consumption-of-fresh-avocados-in-the-us/.

[2] “Cauliflower | Agricultural Marketing Resource Center,” accessed October 26, 2017, https://www.agmrc.org/commodities-products/vegetables/cauliflower/.

[3] “Avocados Climbing the Charts in Search of No. 1 Status,” Packer, accessed October 26, 2017, https://www.thepacker.com/article/avocados-climbing-charts-search-no-1-status.

[4] Hass Avocado Board, “Regional Data Report Jan – Dec 2016 vs. 2015,” accessed October 26, 2017, https://www.hassavocadoboard.com/sites/default/files/hab_-_2016_q4_hab_regional_composite_-_total_u.s.pdf.

[5] “This Just in: Americans Are Eating a Lot of Avocados,” New Hope Network, May 10, 2017, http://www.newhope.com/food-and-beverage/just-americans-are-eating-lot-avocados.

[6] “USDA ERS – Yearbook Tables,” accessed October 30, 2017, https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/fruit-and-tree-nut-data/yearbook-tables/#Noncitrus Fruit.

PG125: The Great House and Senate Tax Plan Question, Elections in VA, NJ, and ME, Trump Visits Asia, and Roy Moore’s Denial

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This week Trey and Jay start by taking on the Senate’s proposed tax plan. It differs from its House counterpart. Trey worries about the deficit and Jay focuses on growth.

Next they turn to the major Democratic wins in Virginia, New Jersey, and Maine. Both hosts agree that they are not necessarily representative of the country as a whole, but they do point to the Trump problem all Republicans now face: to Trump or not to Trump.

After the elections the hosts discuss Trump’s week in Asia. They note that the two big areas of concern were North Korea and trade policy.

Trey and Jay conclude by discussing the recent Washington Post story arguing that Roy Moore had inappropriate relationships with underage girls.

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Trumpaversary

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For the one-year anniversary of President Trump’s election, we brought back Mike’s friend Joe, who Mike talked to in the ‘A Trump Supporter Speaks‘ episode in October of 2016.

At the time, Mike thought it would be good to hear from an actual Trump supporter (as opposed to an ‘anyone buy Hillary’ Trump voter) to get a sense of how Donald Trump convinced so many people to follow him down a path that would surely lead the Republican Party to a crushing electoral defeat giving President Hillary Clinton House and filibuster-proof Senate majorities.

Obviously, things didn’t turn out that way. One year on, how does an intelligent, decent Trump supporter see the Trump presidency? In this interview you’ll find out. (And no – ‘intelligent, decent Trump supporter’ isn’t an oxymoron. Mike says that Joe is one of the smartest and most fundamentally decent people he knows.)

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Introducing Mike’s Blog

If you’re reading this, it’s probably because you’re a Politics Guys listener, which means that you already know who I am and why I’m starting this blog. But for readers who aren’t Politics Guys listeners, here’s a quick intro: I’m Michael Baranowski, political scientist at Northern Kentucky University. I’m also the co-founder and co-host of The Politics Guys podcast.

I’m starting a blog largely out of frustration with academic book publishing. When I set out to write my first book (Navigating the News) I did what all academics are socialized to do – I went in search of an academic publisher. I found one, they offered me a contract, and I produced a book.

That was over four years ago. In that time, total sales of Navigating the News are somewhere under 600. That’s not too bad for an academic book, as amazing as that may seem. My publisher was actually pleased with how ‘well’ the book sold, and last year when I suggested a new edition, they told me that they wanted to wait until sales slowed before considering it. (Seriously.)

I asked them if they could cut the price to increase sales, but to my astonishment, they were entirely uninterested in doing that. Today, if you want to pick up a copy of Navigating the News, it will set you back $37.00 for the print version, and $35.00 for the Kindle edition. This, for a 173 page book that I’d say should be priced at $10 for a hard copy and maybe half that for the Kindle version.

I’m not blaming my publisher – this is how almost all academic publishing works. But the experience made me realize that academic publishing wasn’t for me. I spent years dreaming about, planning, and writing Navigating the News, all for under 600 readers. How depressing. I vowed that never again would I pour my heart and soul into something that was practically guaranteed to have so little impact in the real world.

This presented me with a big problem. While it’s not all that difficult to get a contract with an academic publisher, finding a ‘real’ publisher is another thing altogether. You first have to convince a literary agent that your book is commercially viable. Then, your agent has to convince a publisher that they should buy your book. Very few book ideas make it through this process, and even those that do can take quite a while to go from proposal to publication.

Right now, I’m on sabbatical doing research for my next book, on the politics of food. You may not realize it, but food is incredibly political. There are huge issues involving things like organics, GMOs, agricultural laborers, health & safety, and tons more. I think it’s fascinating stuff, and I want to share my political scientist’s take on these issues with as many people as possible.

But as fascinating and important as I think food politics is, there’s no guarantee that I can find a literary agent who agrees. And even if I do, there’s no guarantee that my agent can find a publisher. I could always self-publish, but without the resources of a publisher behind me, I’m right back to where I was with academic publishing – having written a book that almost nobody sees. No thanks.

And so, instead of doing a ton of research and writing, then waiting and hoping that my book will get published and maybe have some real-world impact, I’m going to publish my book-in-progress here on this blog. That will let me hear what you think about what I’m doing as I’m doing it: what you like, what you don’t like, questions, comments, whatever. It’s sort of like crowd-sourcing the editing of the book as I write it. Plus, building an online community around a book project makes it far more interesting to agents and publishers. Finally, telling you here and now that I’ll be posting new material on food politics once a week puts my feet to the fire and should really help my progress. (In addition to weekly food politics posts, I might also put up some other random musings about politics, semi-political thoughts, or whatever happens to be on my mind.)

This is a big experiment for me, and I have no idea how it’s going to turn out. I’m excited about the possibilities, and I hope you’ll join me in creating my next book.

PG124: (A Lot) About the GOP Tax Plan, Muller Indictments, Terrorism in NYC, and the Powell Nomination

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In this week’s extended episode Trey and Mike start off by discussing the GOP Tax Plan. They begin by analyzing the content of the plan. As to the policy itself, Trey is optimistic, but worried about the 1.5 trillion debt increase. Mike sees both positive and negative aspects to the bill, but overall sees the plan as problematic.

Then its time to talk Mueller’s indictments. Both see this as the first step to a larger set of indictments and both agree that critics of the president ought to moderate their joy. It is unlikely that this will bring down the Trump presidency.

Next it is a discussion of the Halloween ISIS terrorist attack in NYC. Trey stresses that we shouldn’t allow terrorist groups to wield fear to change us. He argues that while terrorist organizations are good at spreading fear, they aren’t as effective at carrying out plots as the media narrative would suggest.

Finally both Trey and Mike address Trump’s nomination of “Jay” Powell to be the next chair of the Federal Reserve, breaking a recent precedent by former presidents.

Mike’s Recommended Reading:

Ezra Klein Podcast

Trey’s Recommended Reading:

The Presidents Club by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy

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Americans for Financial Reform

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Mike talks with Carter Dougherty, Communications Director of Americans for Financial Reform. They cover a lot of ground in their conversation, including:
– Congress overturning the CFPB’s arbitration rule
– the Equifax security breach
– the 2008 financial crisis & Dodd-Frank
– government bailouts
– prosecutors’ unwillingness to go after financial firms
– Wall Street’s influence in Washington

Americans for Financial Reform on Twitter

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PG123: Opioid Emergency, CFPB Overruled, Jeff Flake, Tax Reform

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This week, Mike and Jay start by talking about President Trump’s declaration of the opioid crisis as a public health emergency. Mike wonders about the timing of the announcement, which came out a week before the president’s opioid commission is scheduled to release its final report, and hopes that significant federal funding will soon follow. Jay thinks federal action may help at the margin, but is concerned about throwing money at the problem.

Then, Mike gets to talk about his favorite regulatory agency – the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) though this week he’s dismayed at the agency’s arbitration rule being overturned by Congress. Jay believes it was a wise move by Congress and the Guys get into a somewhat heated discussion over the merits of class action lawsuits vs arbitration.

After that, it’s a discussion of what Arizona Senator Jeff Flake’s decision to not seek election might mean for the Republican party. Flake’s announcement comes in the wake of another Senate Republican, Tennessee’s Bob Corker making a similar decision.

Finally, Mike and Jay discuss the state of tax reform. Mike’s inner idealist comes out and he makes an impassioned plea for some good faith attempts at working across the aisle. Jay argues that Republicans have to be more realistic.

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MIT Professor Luis Perez-Breva on Innovation

Mike talks with Luis Perez-Breva, a successful serial innovator and director of the Innovation Teams Program at MIT. Dr. Perez-Breva holds degrees in Chemical Engineering, Physics, Business, and Artificial Intelligence. He’s an expert in the process of technology innovation, an entrepreneur, and the the author of Innovating: A Doer’s Manifesto for Starting from a Hunch, Prototyping Problems, Scaling Up, and Learning to Be Productively Wrong. (MIT Press 2017).

Mike and Dr. Perez-Breva discuss:
– whether or not innovation is lagging
– if we should be concerned about AI taking millions of jobs
– whether 21st century companies are failing at job creation
– how innovation works
– what government can do to help innovation
– what government does that hinders innovation
– if government itself needs to be innovated

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