Supporting farm laborers everywhere

As a general proposition I enjoy Stephen Colbert, but it was painful to watch his Congressional testimony on immigration. He was trying to make the point that people should not be hostile to immigrants, and pointed out that visaless Mexican farm workers do backbreaking work for trivial pay while being sprayed with pesticides under conditions that American workers would find unacceptable. His apparent conclusion from this was that we therefore should be happy that the government does not enforce laws against hiring people not legally in the country, because otherwise who would put up with such work? By the same token, if Cajun oil workers from swampland Louisiana are willing to breathe toxic chemicals, lose limbs on oil rigs and get blown up in unsafe facilities, our reaction should be “thank God those guys are willing to do that – otherwise the oil companies would have to spend money to have safe practices and facilities!”

Sorry, Stephen, but wages, hours and conditions that are unacceptable to white Americans from middle class parents should be viewed as unacceptable for any worker in America. We aspire to live in a society where nobody who is willing to work hard and do their best has to accept an awful life. Flooding the labor market with people who don’t have a good choice in life and who are therefore willing to accept terrible pay and conditions, simply so that employers don’t have to pay more, improve conditions, stop poisoning people, or stop workplace sexual harassment, is an evil thing to do to American workers and to the immigrants in question.

The fact is that the wages paid to farm workers make up a trivial percentage of the price you pay for food in the supermarket, about 8 cents on the dollar for produce and less for things like grain or soybeans. We could triple their hourly wages, shorten their hours, and make their conditions humane with only a minor bump at the check-out. The argument against improving life for farm workers is not that it would force a dramatic increase in food prices, but rather that it would cause industrial food producers to shift production abroad to where they could continue to exploit and poison luckless foreigners in their own countries.

But there is a simple solution to that. Human rights campaigners have been busily pointing it out in the discussions surrounding NAFTA, the trans-Pacific partnership, and other trade agreements, but the media generally ignore them. All one needs to do is to permit agricultural tariffs to be set at a level that is designed to equalize the incremental cost of domestic food produced using reasonable wages, hours and conditions with the cost of foreign food. That would not require a huge tariff, because again most of the price of food is not attributable to labor costs.

Labor-protection tariffs are not a generally good idea, because they just encourage U.S. employers to substitute automation and hurt everybody. For farm labor, though, if the choice is between current farm labor conditions or automation, go ahead and send the robots to the fields. If we can’t otherwise make the jobs humane, I would not regret eliminating them and trying to find something else useful for the workers to do.

With food tariffs, in contrast to the carbon-equivalent tax, it would be best to have exemptions for producers who have been certified by a reliable authority to pay appropriate wages, to have U.S.-equivalent work conditions, to avoid using pesticides banned in the U.S. and to avoid exposing their workers to poisons. Food tariffs are intended to avoid having the elimination of U.S. exploitation of farm workers drive increased exploitation of farm workers abroad. If a given farmer does not mistreat workers, then he should be able to sell his produce to us at an unburdened price. Ideally we would work with the other developed countries in the OECD (which tends to be more efficient than the U.N.) put together a competent and incorruptible inspection body to support such a system. This would help farm workers everywhere, it would not cause significant harm to U.S. consumers, and it would provide tariff revenue that we could put to good use in reducing employment taxes or supporting family farms.

Then we could enforce our employment laws and watch while U.S. agribusiness figures out how to make farm work something that Americans are willing to do. I’m willing to bet that they will find themselves capable of solving that one if we stop enabling the callous exploitation of non-voters. We citizens just need to recognize that we have been facilitating an evil system while convincing ourselves that we are somehow being enlightened angels through our tolerance of undercutting the market power of farm labor. Finding the concept of “jobs that Americans aren’t willing to take” acceptable puts us in the category as the colonial Americans who thought it was fine literally to work indentured servants to death (a common practice) or the later Americans who thought the conditions of certain farm workers in the South were a necessary part of agriculture. We should be beyond that now. Proper tariffs can help us to get there.