Last week we started a discussion about illegal immigration and farm workers after I made a comment in passing about farm labor in Georgia. Just this year, Georgia passed a law similar to Arizona’s contriversial immigration law but even more restrictive. Georgia made it illegal to transport undocumented people, and a felony if you’ve transported more than 7. (You can understand why cab drivers, ambulence drivers, church groups are challenging the law in court.) If the purpose of the law was to make undocumented people feel unwelcome, it worked like a charm. It worked so well, in fact, that the nudge, nudge, wink, wink agreement that the agriculture industry had with cheap, undocumented labor fell apart.
Barely a month ago, you might recall, Gov. Nathan Deal welcomed the TV cameras into his office as he proudly signed HB 87 into law. Two weeks later, with farmers howling, a scrambling Deal ordered a hasty investigation into the impact of the law he had just signed, as if all this had come as quite a surprise to him.
As an editorial in the Valdosta Daily Times notes, “Maybe this should have been prepared for, with farmers’ input. Maybe the state should have discussed the ramifications with those directly affected. Maybe the immigration issue is not as easy as ’send them home,’ but is a far more complex one in that maybe Georgia needs them, relies on them, and cannot successfully support the state’s No. 1 economic engine without them.”
According to the survey, more than 6,300 of the unclaimed jobs pay an hourly wage of just $7.25 to $8.99, or an average of roughly $8 an hour. Over a 40-hour work week in the South Georgia sun, that’s $320 a week, before taxes, although most workers probably put in considerably longer hours. Another 3,200 jobs pay $9 to $11 an hour. And while our agriculture commissioner has been quoted as saying Georgia farms provide “$12, $13, $14, $16, $18-an-hour jobs,” the survey reported just 169 openings out of more than 11,000 that pay $16 or more.
In addition, few of the jobs include benefits — only 7.7 percent offer health insurance, and barely a third are even covered by workers compensation. And the truth is that even if all 2,000 probationers in the region agreed to work at those rates and stuck it out — a highly unlikely event, to put it mildly — it wouldn’t fix the problem.
When people say undocumented immigrants are filling jobs that Americans won’t take, it looks like they are correct. This kind of work is very, very difficult for low pay and no benefits. I certainly don’t blame Americans for not wanting to do this kind of work on a subsistence salary.
Agriculture has always relied on cheap labor. That was the purpose of slavery and its successor, sharecropping. Most of the time government has looked the other way. I don’t pretend to be any kind of expert on agriculture policy but it looks like we have the choice of either allowing more migrant workers (our uneasy status quo), some sort of legal status for migrant workers (worker VISAs, guest workers or amnesty) or to raise the pay for these jobs enough to attract more Americans and legal immigrants.
I don’t think we can go back to the old way of pretending we don’t know what’s going on. I have a hard time seeing how we will transition to a new system without raising pay, benefits and worker protection for these jobs.