MPI Briefing on Farm Labor Highlights Recent Data Trends

The Migration Policy Institute held a briefing on September 16, 2015 titled “ What's New in Farm Labor? Immigration and the Agricultural Sector.” A recording of the briefing can be found here. The speakers included Philip Martin, Chair, UC Comparative Immigration & Integration Program, University of California, Davis; Tom Hertz, Economist, Rural Economy Branch, Resource and Rural Economics Division, Economic Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture; and Craig Regelbrugge, Senior Vice President, Industry Advocacy and Research, AmericanHort. Unfortunately, the panel on farm labor and immigration did not include a speaker providing the farmworker perspective, though Farmworker Justice’s Director of Immigration and Labor Rights, Adrienne DerVartanian, had the opportunity to speak briefly from the audience to identify issues important to farmworkers regarding the data and analysis.

The briefing largely focused on data trends in the farm labor market and whether there are indications that the farm labor market is tightening. The briefing also examined the potential impact of legalization of undocumented immigrants on retention of farmworkers as well as a brief discussion of the H-2A guestworker program and future-flow policy proposals.

Dr. Martin provided basic demographic data about the agricultural workforce, much of it derived from the National Agricultural Worker Survey (NAWS) and USDA data. Since 2004, agricultural employment has increased by about 6%. He noted the difficulty of quantifying the number of farmworkers and estimated roughly 1.2 million farm labor jobs and roughly 2.4 million farmworkers ( based on California’s Unemployment Insurance data of roughly 2 farmworkers for every full-time equivalent employee). However,, the rate of undocumented immigration has slowed. The NAWS reveals that there are fewer newcomers in agriculture (workers in the US for less than one year) with a drop from 20% in 2000 to 2% of the agricultural workforce in the latest NAWS data (2011-12). Roughly half of the current agricultural workforce is undocumented, with about 2/3 of foreign-born farm workers lacking immigration status. The remaining farmworkers are about 33% citizens, 18% lawful permanent residents and 1% having some other kind of work authorization. The workforce is also aging: the average age is now 37 and farmworkers tend to be more settled. More NAWS data is available in our factsheet. According to Martin, this data in combination with some other trends provide some indication that the labor market is tightening.

In addition to the above data, Martin pointed to an overall increase in farmworker income. Martin noted that while the data on wages indicates that wages are on average rising slightly, the data is “spotty” and inconsistent; with increases varying from year to year and state to state. Martin noted that the primary increase in income comes from an increase in the number of weeks worked per year, rather than a significant increase in the hourly wage. Tom Hertz pointed to evidence of a modest rising real hourly wage increase for farmworkers as compared to other workers with low education levels— 7% since 2001 compared to -2% for convenience store workers— but also noted the inconsistent data Martin had flagged. Unfortunately, despite this evidence of modest increases, farmworker wages are still very low, with an average wage of just $9.31 across the country or about $15,000-$17,000 per year, and with very little access to any benefits such as health insurance or paid sick leave. 

During the discussion on the tightening labor market, Prof. Martin pointed out that economic incentives in agriculture may create artificial labor shortages with farmers requesting too many workers and contractors promising too many workers too soon. This is how several agricultural counties in California can have unemployment rates over 20% with growers still claiming a “shortage.” Martin also presented data showing that growers in California are increasingly using farm labor contractors to supply their labor. Since 2007, more workers are being brought to California farms by farm labor contractors than are being hired directly.

Prof. Martin raised the question of whether increasing wages actually works, pointing to the belief among many farmers that increasing wages doesn’t attract workers (he questions whether increased wages attracts new workers or merely shifts workers between farms.) This is one place where a worker perspective in the discussion could have been helpful. It’s hard to imagine how increasing wages and offering other benefits would not attract workers; indeed, it is the very premise that drives much of the private labor market. Regelbrugge raised a concern about the feasibility of increasing farmworker wages, noting the global nature of the agricultural market and the increase of imports. Martin’s research actually includes a study noting that a 40% increase in farmworker wages poses little threat to US consumers or the export market, and would only increase US consumer household spending by about $16 per year. Additionally, consumers are growing increasingly conscious about the conditions under which their food is produced, as illustrated by supply chain projects such as the Equitable Food Initiative and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ Campaign for Fair Foods, both of which address wages and working conditions by working with corporations at the top of the supply chain.

Regarding H-2A workers, Martin noted the growth in the H-2A program, particularly in Washington and California, which grew from 4,400 worker positions certified in 2012 to 9,000 positions certified in 2014 and 3,000 H-2A positions certified in 2012 and 6,000 in 2014, respectively. Overall, the program has grown from roughly 75,000 positions certified in FY07 to an estimated 130,000 positions certified in FY15. Martin noted that many employers value their H-2A workers because they are “loyal” and do not switch to higher paying employers. Of course, H-2A workers have no choice but to be loyal because their nonimmigrant visa and ability to remain and work in the United States is tied to their employer. This dependence on their employers not only creates a market distortion but it leaves H-2A workers extremely vulnerable to exploitation. Because H-2A workers often pay recruitment fees to come to the United States, their debt can make them even more desperate to please their employers. As a result, H-2A workers will often work to the limits of human endurance to keep their employers --even the law-abiding, good employers—satisfied. Other elements of the H-2A program also cause H-2A employers to prefer their H-2A workforce to the domestic workers, including their ability to pick workers based on age, gender and race; the exclusion of H-2A workers from the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act, one of the main federal protections for farmworkers; and the exclusion of H-2A workers from social security and unemployment taxes.

Tom Hertz also examined the impact legalization has had on farmworkers’ decisions to remain or leave agriculture and on their wages. At Farmworker Justice we have prioritized the issue of immigration reform because the undocumented status of the majority of farmworkers is a major contributing factor to the low wages, poor conditions and extensive illegal practices in agriculture. We believe immigration reform with a path to citizenship that includes the current undocumented and H-2A farmworkers is essential to stabilize the agricultural workforce and improve wages and living and working conditions for farmworkers

There is an assumption among some that farmworkers obtaining immigration status will leave agriculture. As a result, AgJOBS and other agricultural immigration compromises have included future work requirements for agricultural workers and have expanded employer access to guestworker programs. We believe many farmworkers value and enjoy their work, but simply want to be treated with respect and be able to support their families by earning a living wage with benefits. Moreover, many farmworkers may not have the networks, education or English skills needed to obtain many other jobs. Hertz’s extensive analysis of data shows that employer fears are likely overblown.

The data presented by Dr. Martin and Dr. Hertz are helpful in understanding the complicated nature of the US farm labor force. Immigration reform policies in agriculture addressing the future flow of immigrant farmworkers must strike a balance between ensuring enough labor while encouraging a stable agricultural workforce through higher wages and better working conditions for farmworkers and year-round (or closer to year-round) employment. Essential to these goals are a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants that includes farmworkers and their families, and policies that offer equal rights and promote respect and dignity for all farmworkers.