Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The US needs a farmworker visa now

The price of California wine is already going to rise with this vintage because of a grape and bulk wine shortage that has even veteran brokers saying they've got nothing to sell.

Now, a shortage of vineyard workers is putting even more pressure on prices. And US immigration policy and politics are the root of the problem.

I chatted briefly about the current labor situation with vineyard owner Jennifer Thomson, who put her thoughts on her own blog yesterday. I encourage you to read it, but here's the Cliff Notes:

* There aren't as many farmworkers as usual because of tighter US immigration policy combined with the recent Mexican election, which may have encouraged workers to stay home and vote.

* Most of the non-grape specialist laborers live in the Central Valley, where most of California's fruits and vegetables are grown. There's plenty of work there now and thus less incentive for them to drive to the coastal wine regions. If construction work ever recovers, there will be even fewer workers for more fruit trees.

* Farmworkers with skills in working with grapevines -- this means most of the Mexican laborers in Napa and Sonoma County -- want to be paid accordingly, even to do tasks that require less experience, such as leaf removal.

It's striking to me that the hourly wages we're talking about aren't very high.

Thomson pays $12 for unskilled farm labor; $18 for skilled labor. I've spent a couple days working in vineyards to see what it's like and $96 for an 8-hour day in 90-degree weather doesn't seem like much. No wonder that even with unemployment high in the US, we still generally can't get Americans to do this work.

It's also striking that the amounts Thomson mentions arguing about are tiny. She said another grower  needed to give a $0.44/hour raise -- less than $20/week -- to his fulltime employees to keep them on the payroll. Bully for them in recognizing and using the leverage of their scarcity; Cesar Chavez would be proud. That said, we're all going to end up paying more for agricultural products, whether peaches or lettuce or wine.

It's probably not feasible in an election year, but the US really needs an agricultural worker visa -- perhaps allowing 6 months of work every 12 months, and renewable without question every year in the absence of arrests.

This would benefit everyone. Growers would get a larger and more predictable work force, and they wouldn't have to negotiate wages on the fly as Thomson is doing. Workers might not get the opportunity to bargain for an occasional weekend bonanza, but they would have federal wage protection for their regular gigs. As for the rest of us, immigrant workers could be required to buy car insurance, or have it bought for them. And for US citizens who complain about illegal immigrants' pressure on our social welfare system, think about the benefits of workers going home for half of every year.

Naturally, with success stories like the man I wrote about yesterday, we'd want to see a path to permanent resident status and citizenship for workers who demonstrate reliability -- and perhaps English-language skills -- over time. But isn't that an ideal immigration policy anyway? We don't get a random sampling of new residents; we get people who have already come here, worked hard and proven themselves.

President Obama said, after the Supreme Court upheld the health care bill, "It's clear by now I didn't do this because it was good politics." A farmworker visa might not be good politics either -- but it would be good policy. California farmers need it. So does everyone who buys California farm products.

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  1. This is the program that needs to be put in place again but with present congresscritters running the show it would be all but impossible. As some that has work as labor in the fields most can't even imagine how hard it is to be in 100f heat all day long. Yes, I live in the central valley and my neighbors that do row crops are having the same problems on hiring. Wages are an issue everywhere and I use to hire some guys that were at the local little market but they have stopped coming north just too much trouble for so little pay. Then there is ICE and they aren’t helping either. I’ve done grapes also for half a day and it’s an art not to cut your fingers off. Good Luck and yes learn Spanish. Yes more money and nation wide free health care.

    The Braceros had to sue America for their SS that they paid into and were told they would receive.

    I’ve pointed this out to you in the past.

    Left this on the link

  2. I share office space with vineyard owners and yes this year is really bad. Not surprised to see the word NOW in your headline. I've supported Feinstein's guest worker program for how long now? Has it been two decades maybe?