Back in June, the United Farm Workers (UFW) launched their “Take Our Jobs” campaign which invites American citizens and legal residents to fill the farm jobs that are mostly occupied by undocumented labor. Comedian Stephen Colbert of Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report” traveled to a farm in upstate New York and spent ten hours “picking beans, packing corn and learning about the stark reality facing Americans farms and farmers.”
Today, Colbert testified before the House Judiciary subcommittee on his experience as an entertainer-turned-migrant worker. As part of his testimony, Colbert called for more visas for farmworkers
This brief experience gave me some small understanding of why so few Americans are clamoring to begin an exciting career as seasonal migrant field worker. So what’s the answer? I’m a free market guy. Normally I would leave this to the invisible hand of the market, but the invisible hand of the market has already moved over 84,000 acres of production and over 22,000 farm jobs over to Mexico and shut down over a million acres of U.S. farm land due to lack of available labor because apparently even the invisible hand doesn’t want to pick beans. [...]
Maybe we could give more visas to the immigrants, who — let’s face it — will probably be doing these jobs anyway. And this improved legal status might allow legal immigrants recourse if they’re abused. And it justs stands to reason to me if your coworker can’t be exploited, then you’re less likely to be exploited yourself. And that itself might improve pay and working conditions on these farms and eventually Americans may consider taking these jobs again.
Or maybe that’s crazy. Maybe the easier answer is just to have scientists develop vegetables that pick themselves.
Agriculture is ranked amongst the three most hazardous occupations in the nation. For every 100,000 agricultural workers in the U.S. in 2007, there were 25.7 occupational deaths. That’s because farmworkers are exposed to toxic pesticides, work under the hot sun for 10-12 hours a day, handle hazardous tools and machinery, and live in crowded conditions with poor sanitation. In return, most farmworkers earn approximately $28,040 a year.
The solution to improving farm jobs is two-fold: fixing the immigration system as Colbert mentioned and also improving wages and working conditions in the agricultural sector. Yet, as long as most farmworkers feel that they can’t report abuses and fight for their rights without fear of deportation or retaliation agricultural work will remain a grueling, dangerous, and thankless career that most Americans have no interest in pursuing. As Colbert briefly noted, if the U.S. doesn’t find a way to legalize immigrant agricultural workers, businesses will continue moving their operations to other countries where they can find laborers.
Contrary to what Swain and other immigration hawks suggest, despite a major recession, most farmers and ranchers are still struggling to find the workers they need. “Comprehensive immigration reform is needed, so that America’s farmers and ranchers can continue to produce an abundant supply of safe, healthy food, as well as renewable fuels and fiber for our nation,” writes Ron Gaskill, director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation
Initially, Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) asked Colbert to leave the room without delivering his testimony. However, Conyers indicated he changed his mind after hearing the testimony of Dr. Carol M. Swain who denied that there is a shortage of agricultural workers and called it “a manufactured crisis.”
On a more serious note, when asked why he was advocating for migrant workers, Colbert responded: “I like talking about people who don’t have any power and it seems like one of the least powerful people in the United States are migrant workers who come and do our work but don’t have any rights as a result. But yet we still invite them to come here and at the same time ask them to leave. [...] Migrant workers suffer and have no rights.”