Friday, June 25, 2010

Job Americans Won't Do?

I'm a huge fan of Comedy Central's faux-conservative pundit Stephen Colbert - although I initially had reservations about his latest stunt.

Teaming up with the United Federation of Farm Workers, he boldly challenged the ranks of America's unemployed (whom, until recently, I was one of) to fill the thousands of farm worker jobs advertised each and every autumn.

Their website is Take Our Jobs.

The stunt's meant to draw attention to the plight of illegal immigrants in this country, as three-quarters of all farm workers were born outside of the United States, and more than half of them are illegal immigrants.

The challenge to 'take our jobs' is a direct attack on the notion that 'illegal invaders' are taking jobs away from American citizens. The United Federation of Farm Workers argue that farm worker jobs truly are the jobs American citizens 'won't do.'

(And to prove that point, during the last recruitment drive to get the unemployed Americans to fill the thousands of vacancies, just three even bothered turning up to be interviewed.)

But to my mind, this stunt highlights an entirely different problem. We shouldn't be celebrating the fact that illegal aliens are willing to do the jobs that Americans 'won't do.' We should be wondering how - in a modern, industrialized economy - we allow an employment model to exist that basically precludes anybody but undocumented aliens and those coming from nations of extreme poverty.

Colbert revealed what the life of a farm worker is like and it's not pretty.

For a start, it's one of the most dangerous jobs in America. Laboring for half a day in the blazing sun leads to heat-stroke and death on frequent basis. Yet I don't think long hours, hard work or danger are the reasons American citizens are refusing to accept these jobs.

In addition to this backbreaking work, farm labors earn a pittance. Many farms aren't required to give even minimum wage and many are excluded from paying overtime as well. What's worse, smaller farms are even exempt from workers compensation - so if you collapse in the field from heat exhaustion, you can't ask your employer to cover your medical costs.

It's basically little more than slave labor - no great step up from how farm workers used to live during the reconstruction following the Civil War. The reason these are jobs 'no American would take' is because they're jobs no human being should take.

And it's wrong. It shouldn't be allowed.

Don't misunderstand me. I'm fairly conservative and a fierce supporter of the free market system - however I have stronger support for the principle of a living wage.

I believe, without exception, that if you hire somebody to work for you full time (for more than forty hours a week) you are morally - and should be legally - obligated to:
  • Pay them a wage on which they can live.
  • Provide them with basic medical insurance.
  • Offer them the basic protections required by law.
The farming industry fails to provide farm laborers with any of those things, which is why it's entirely understandable that no American wants to take that work. They shouldn't have to.

And before they open their opinionated mouths, right-wing types who argue about 'the free market' need to remember that the farming industry in America doesn't really count as part of the 'free market' anyway.

It survives on billions of dollars of government subsidy each and every year and therefore shouldn't be subsidized any more by the blood and sweat of exploited workers.

Offer farm laborers decent wages, decent health coverage and basic protection and I guarantee that American citizens would happily brave the blazing heat and punishing hours. Americans aren't afraid of hard work - they just expect to be able to earn enough to live off doing it.

And if the farming industry can't afford to pay its workers what they owe them? Well, perhaps that says more about the farming industry than the immigration debate. Maybe those farms don't deserve to be in business, and maybe billions of dollars of federal subsidies would be better spent elsewhere.

It's harsh, I know - and don't get me wrong. I love farming. I grew up on a farm, the countryside is in my blood and one of the things I love about America is the fact that it still manages to be remarkably self-sufficient when it comes to food.

But even I - one of the biggest advocates of farming going - believe the era of the great American farm might be over if this is what they've reduced themselves to in order to make a profit.

As far as illegal immigration fits into this problem, it's a symptom - not the disease. If the farming industry was obligated to pay workers what it owed, either Americans would fill those jobs or the source of production would move overseas (as, for all those 'free market' advocates, perhaps it should.')

In either eventuality, it would end one of the biggest lures this nation has for illegal immigrants.


One Salient Oversight said...

The perennial problem with the unemployment and low wages is this: The wage the market is willing to pay is not good enough for the labour market to respond.

Unfortunately it ends up in a catch-22: Increasing wages ends up pricing a lot of labour out of the market's reach, but decreasing wages ends up alienating labour (the total cost of not working ends up higher than the total cost of working... and that is not just because of welfare, but because of transport to and from work, the costs of medical care, and so on).

A good solution is one that I came up with myself, but was also proposed by Edmund Phelps, a Nobel prize winning economist.

Basically the idea is to do two seemingly contradictory things. The first is to lower the minimum wage, the second is to introduce government paid wage subsidies.

This means that the workers end up getting paid well, while the bosses don't end up having to foot the bill: society does.

Of course such a measure would need an increase in taxes to fund it, but the result would be lower unemployment as well as higher wages for the poor and unskilled.

Roland Hulme said...

That's a VERY interesting solution - I think we need that in the UK. I don't think it would fly in America (sounds too much like 'socialism' to some) but it's really not much different than any other subsidy - except the workers benefit rather than the corporations (but because of that, corporate lobbyists won't support it and it'll never pass.)