Alabama farmers are facing a labor crisis because of the state's new immigration law as both legal and undocumented migrant workers have fled the state since the strict new rules went into effect last month.There are many ways to approach this simple story. One approach would be to note that the local workers are simply too lazy to do hard work, despite horrendous levels of unemployment in the US. From this, we could present a story of lazy rich country workers who think that the world owes them a living, who are not willing to get on with work, but would choose living on hand-outs rather than doing hard work. It is a tempting approach, and was my first reaction to the story.
So far, piecemeal efforts to match the unemployed or work release inmates to farm jobs are not panning out, and farmers are asking state lawmakers to do something before the spring planting season.
Farmer Guiseppe Peturis has a small operation — growing mostly vegetables on his family's 20-acre farm in Belforest, Ala. — and selling them on the corner in front of his house. His retail business has suffered since he appeared on the local news saying Alabamians don't want to do hard farm work.
Peturis says he's a Republican, but is no fan of Republican Gov. Robert Bentley's plan to get jobs for out-of-work Alabamians by passing the nation's toughest immigration law. Among other things, it calls for police to detain suspects if there's reasonable suspicion they are in the country illegally.
Peturis says he's tried to hire through the state unemployment office before, but didn't have much success.
"Two of them left in 30 minutes; didn't even tell us they [were] going to leave," Peturis says. "One worked an hour and says it was too hard on his back."
However, I then thought back to a time when I finished my degree and had some time to fill between starting my first job. I needed money to tide me over and worked for a little while as a building labourer. I discovered the meaning of hard physical work. I can safely assume that working as a labourer on building sites remains just as hard. I also note that there is not the same kind of discussion of the necessity for immigrant labour to allow the building trade to continue. I also remember that, when I chose the labouring job, I chose it because it paid considerably more than, for example, bar work.
When I thought about this story, it occurred to me that perhaps the real problem is that the pay being offered is simply too low for the level of hard physical work that is required. The farmers have become used to being able to pay low wages to immigrant workers, and have not accepted that they must simply pay more for local workers. This means that the farmers costs must go up, and that means higher food prices. However, set against that, the demand for government hand outs would be reduced with the resultant drop in unemployment and there would be more tax paid to the government.
Nevertheless, there is an element of the first approach to the story that remains. It is that presumably unemployed people are choosing hand outs over working for low wages which they do not think compensate them for the demands of the work.
Although this story at first seems to be straightforward, it is actually discussing some of the complexities of trying to understand the real operation of an economy. The availability of migrant labour has seemingly allowed farmers to pay lower wages than local people would accept. This in turn has impacted upon the cost structure of agriculture, such that the expectations for the prices asked by farmers are, in part, determined by this cost structure. I do not know the details of the Alabama law that is referred to in the story, but it seems that Alabama has 'gone it alone' with regards to cracking down on migrant labour. This in turn leaves the Alabama farmers with a problem with their costs in relation to the competition.
The real problem therefore is not that Alabama has restricted access to migrant workers, but that it has acted alone. I suggested earlier that Alabama farmers had not accepted that they must pay more, but it is probably a case of them being unable to pay more without making a loss. The real question is to ask what would happen if migrant labour were to disappear across the whole of the US? If this were undertaken, if migrant labour was unavailable, the story from Alabama suggests that the wages for agricultural labour would have to rise to compensate for the hard work involved. This would lead to inflation in food prices, and therefore lead to a rise in the broad measure of inflation, and a fall in unemployment.
However, there are other potential consequences that might confound this scenario. For some kinds of produce, there is the potential for competition from other countries. Would the increase in costs in the US agricultural sector then lead to an increase in imports of produce? If so, it might be that, in paying higher wages to the local workers, the farmers would still face competition and might lose in that competition.
The real question here is about the cost of labour in the US. The problem is that, where there is potential for competition for imports, the cost of labour really matters. The problem is that, if labour is a large element of the input of a good or service, then the low cost countries are likely to win in competition. The agricultural sector has survived competition by importing relatively low cost labour i.e. labour that is willing to work for lower wages than local labour. The result of this is that there is cheaper food, but higher unemployment. Remove the immigrant labour, and agricultural wages will rise, and unemployment will be reduced. However, this might take place at the cost of certain sectors of agriculture going out of business, with a negative impact upon the balance of trade, and possibly a negative impact upon unemployment to offset the positive gains.
As I said, this appears to be a simple story, and simple narratives could be wrapped around the story. However, it illustrates some of the problems in a world economy where there is greater competition between unskilled labour, even if it is not always obvious that the competition exists. There are some elements in this story which much of economic theory does not really capture, such as the idea that people think that there is a fair price for hard physical labour, rather than a market price determined by supply and demand. The supply of unskilled labour is large, with any unemployed person who is not disabled able to do the work. Nevertheless, it seems that this labour has a sense of a 'fair' price for this kind of hard physical labour so that, even though there is an oversupply of labour, the price of that labour must rise in order to access that pool of labour. Supply and demand does not explain this.
What appears to sit underneath the entire story is the cost of labour. I have made a case in this blog that the massive input of labour into the world economy has created what I have termed hyper-competition. However, it appears that the story about the Alabama farmers appears to be an illustration of how the oversupply of labour is creating a situation of hyper-competition, at least in some agricultural sectors. The curiosity is the response of the unemployed US people, who simply think it is unfair to be paid so little for such hard work. As much as it would be nice to be paid higher wages, is it possible/realistic? Is it confronting the reality of the situation of hyper-competition? Can the US afford to keep people so many people unemployed? If my take on this story is correct (and again I highlight the caveat), then the story is a hard illustration of the problems that have come with the growth in the world labour force.