Seasonal Guest Workers Don’t Create Low Pay, Low Pay Creates Seasonal Guest Workers

A Myanmar vendor sells vegetables at a market in Yangon on May 13, 2013.

Photo by Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images

Michael Clemens has a paper looking at agricultural guest work in North Carolina (PDF) where he shows that at currently prevailing wages almost no native-born Americans want to take crop-picking jobs and even more strikingly those who do accept the jobs tend to quit. We can see that this dynamic doesn’t really change even when the unemployment rate is high, and that gives us strong evidence that modest wage hikes would not substantially change the picture. But what about really big wage hikes? Well I think it stands to reason that there is some wage at which native workers will pick crops, and it also stands to reason that the higher the wage a farm owner has to pay the fewer acres will be brought into cultivation. Where exactly the quantitative balances lie, I couldn’t quite say.

But I did want to respond to this cranky email received by Kevin Drum:

Farm laborers in Australia make much more than American ones. And yet they still have a functional agricultural sector. It turns out that allowing companies to import an unlimited number of foreign workers desperate to work at a wage of epsilon will create shitty working conditions and low wages!

I of course know what Drum’s correspond means here, but he’s dead wrong. It’s not the foreign workers who create shitty working conditions and low wages, it’s the shitty working conditions and low wages that make people willing to serve as imported labor. Prohibiting workers from working in the United States keeps them stuck in even worse working conditions for even worse pay.

Now, again, many people appear to take the view that immigration policy should be made without reference to the interests of actual or potential migrants. That’s an interesting debate to be had. But people shouldn’t talk about the economic consequences of immigration without so much as mentioning the consequences for the migrants. The impact of keeping seasonal farm workers out of the United States will be to take a very poor slice of the world’s population and make them even poorer. I think it reflects something of an impoverished imagination if one can’t think of any smarter strategies for benefitting low-skilled Americans than ones that involve simultaneously harming the economic interests of the global poor and the interests of America’s food-eating middle class.