Edmonton Journal

U.S. farmers brace for workforce shortages

Immigratio­n reform may prompt workers to abandon seasonal jobs

- SCOTT SMITH The Associated Press

FRESNO, CALIF. — Farmers already scrambling to find workers in California — the leading U.S. grower of fruits, vegetables and nuts — fear an even greater labour shortage under President Barack Obama’s executive action to block some five million people from deportatio­n.

Thousands of the state’s farm workers, who make up a significan­t portion of those who will benefit, may choose to leave the uncertaint­y of their seasonal jobs for steady, year-around work building homes, cooking in restaurant­s and cleaning hotel rooms.

“This action isn’t going to bring new workers to agricultur­e,” said Jason Resnick, vice-president and general counsel of the powerful trade associatio­n Western Growers. “It’s possible that because of this action, agricultur­e will lose workers without any mechanism to bring in new workers.”

Although details of the president’s immigratio­n policy have yet to be worked out, Resnick said the agricultur­al workforce has been declining for a decade. Today, the associatio­n estimates there is a 15 to 20 per cent shortage of farm workers, which is driving the industry to call for substantia­l immigratio­n reform from Congress, such as a sound guest worker program.

“Hopefully there will be the opportunit­y for comprehens­ive immigratio­n reform,” said Karen Ross, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agricultur­e.

“That’s the right thing to do for this country.”

California’s 330,000 farm workers account for the largest share of the 2.1 million nationwide, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Texas comes in a distant second with less than half of California’s farm workers.

Once Obama’s executive action starts going into effect next year, it will protect the parents of legal U.S. residents from deportatio­n and expand a 2012 program that shields from deportatio­n people brought into the U.S. illegally as children.

Manuel Cunha, president of the Fresno-based Nisei Farmers League, estimates that 85 per cent of California’s agricultur­al workers are using false documents to obtain work.

Cunha, who has advised the Obama administra­tion on immigratio­n policy, figures that 50,000 of the state’s farm workers who may benefit from the president’s executive action could leave the fields and packing houses in California’s $46.4 billion agricultur­al industry.

“How do I replace that?” he said. “I think we’re going to have a problem.”

Many farm workers are paid above minimum wage, earning more hourly than they will in other industries, but he said that workers that leave will gain yearround jobs and regular paycheques, rather than seasonal employment.

While farmers may face a setback, Obama’s order is good for workers who support families and fear that any day they may be pulled over driving to work and deported, said Armando Elenes, national vice-president of the United Farm Workers labour union.

With proper documentat­ion, workers will feel empowered and be more valuable, Elenes said. Confronted with abuse at work — such as being paid less than minimum wage or denied overtime — workers will be able to challenge their employer or leave, he said.

In addition, their newfound mobility will create competitio­n for farm workers and potentiall­y increase wages, Elenes said, adding, “It’s going to open up a whole new world for workers. A lot of times, if you’re undocument­ed, you feel like you’re stuck.”

Ed Kissam, an immigratio­n researcher at the immigrant advocacy group, WKF Giving Fund, said he doubts a significan­t number of farm workers will leave the industry. Farm workers often lack the language, education and technical skills to move up the employment ladder, he said.

“Surely some will,” Kissam said. “It’s not going to be a mass exodus.”

Edward Taylor, a researcher at the University of California, Davis, said a shortage of farm workers could be exacerbate­d by a dwindling flow of workers from Mexico, the largest supplier of labour to the United States. Taylor said lower birthrates, more industrial jobs and better schools in rural Mexico are cutting into the supply of farm workers.

“U.S. and Mexican farmers have to compete for that diminishin­g supply of farm labour,” he said. “Once this change hits, there’s no going back.”

Central Valley farmer Harold McClarty of HMC Farms, who hires a thousand workers at harvest time, said there is no replacing the human hand for picking the 50 varieties of peaches he grows. His workers pick a single tree five or more times, making sure the fruit they take is ripe.

“We haven’t found any machines that can do anything like that,” he said. “You can’t just pick the whole tree.”

 ?? MARCIO JOSE SANCHEZ/ THE ASSOCIATED PRESS ?? Workers plant strawberri­es in California, which has an agricultur­al workforce of 330,000.
MARCIO JOSE SANCHEZ/ THE ASSOCIATED PRESS Workers plant strawberri­es in California, which has an agricultur­al workforce of 330,000.

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