Editorials | Issues | May 2007
|Illegal Workers or Convicts?|
Domenico Maceri - PVNN
“If they can’t get slaves from Mexico, they want them from the jails,” stated Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington. Krikorian was referring to Colorado’s plan of using convicts as farm workers to make sure crops don’t rot on the fields because of labor shortages.
After having passed some of the toughest laws against illegal immigration, some Colorado officials are beginning to have second thoughts about them because fearful workers are leaving the state. As a result, Colorado farmers don’t have enough people to pick their crops.
The solution? Using convicts who would be paid 60 cents a day instead of the 60-100 dollars a day for farm workers. Of course, 60 cents would not cover the entire cost since guards to watch over the convicts would also have to be paid, making the labor cost higher than if regular farm workers were used.
Prisoners would not be required to work. It would be an option for those who represent a low risk of escape. Nevertheless, some farmers are hesitating into jumping at the offer since they are concerned about safety. Joe Pisciotta, a Colorado farmer, for example, worries about the safety of his young kids.
The idea to use convicts is to make sure some farmers don’t go out of business. Iowa is also planning to use convicts to pick crops.
Convicts have been used in the past in agricultural work. During World War II labor shortages pushed California to use convicts as farm workers.
The idea sounds simple yet since the work is hard and does require some skills not all convicts would qualify.
Agricultural labor shortages are occurring across the country. The reduction is particularly severe in California, especially in parts of the state where only one major crop predominates. That means the harvesting season is short and after that, workers will have no jobs. Workers tend to stay away from areas that focus on just one crop.
The decrease of farm workers is due to the anti-immigrant legislation but also to the fact that fewer people are coming in from Mexico because the journey has become very difficult. Recently, the number of apprehension at the Mexico-U.S. border has decreased significantly. Some believe that it’s due to the increased difficulties in making it across but others assert that the improved Mexican economy is encouraging Mexicans to stay home.
For the undocumented workers already in the U.S. the difficulty of returning to Mexico on a yearly basis has pushed them to stay put and are more likely to have become immigrants instead of migrants.
That, of course, means that people become settled and begin to look around for more desirable work away from agriculture. Other employers provide better opportunities.
Working in agriculture may generate wages of about $ 9-10 an hour. In construction one could make $15-20 an hour. In addition, in construction one can learn skills which can later be used to advance. Picking crops seldom means advancement.
Thus as soon as people have been in the country a short while they will leave agriculture for better paying and “cleaner” worksites.
Given the competition for workers, some farmers have begun to raise wages to attract people.
A bill in the U.S. Senate sponsored by Senators Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and John McCain (R-AR) would set up a guest worker program and at the same time provide a path to permanent residency to some of the estimated 12 million undocumented workers in the U.S. Of course, it would also solve the labor shortages for farmers.
Capitalism works on the idea of supply and demand. When supply is low, prices go up. However, when there is a labor shortage, wages don’t go up. Companies look for more workers. The guest worker plan is one idea. Using convicts is another idea that tells you how much companies value their workers.
Domenico Maceri, PhD, UC Santa Barbara, teaches foreign languages at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, CA. He is the author of a book on Pirandello, one on Spanish grammar, and another on Italian grammar. He has also published a number of articles in newspapers and magazines around the world, some of which have won awards from the National Association of Hispanic Publications.
Click HERE for more articles by Domenico Maceri.