Immigrants, jobs – and machines

In the light of my previous article about automation threatening many current jobs, I was both heartened and provoked to thought by this report from the BBC.

On the flat plains of the Po Valley is the small town of Novellara, in the province of Reggio Emilia. It’s not far from the city of Parma – and from Parma and Reggio Emilia comes the name of one of the world’s most famous cheeses, Parmigiano Reggiano… in English, Parmesan. Under EU rules, it has to be made exclusively from milk produced and transformed into cheese in this area of northern Italy.

The large number of Sikhs who have settled here were not attracted by the territory’s famous product but rather by the territory itself, explains Novellara’s mayor, Elena Carletti: “They say, ‘We live here and we feel like we’re still in Punjab because it’s flat, there are no mountains, it’s hot, it’s humid, and the kind of agriculture is more or less the same.'” According to the mayor, Sikhs feel comfortable in their Italian home from home.

“Punjab, which means ‘the land of five rivers’, is an agricultural land,” confirms Amritpal Singh, whose family moved to Italy when he was five years old. “At home we have fields and cows, and our relationship with the land and animals is very particular. So, when we came here and didn’t know the language, this was something in our favour.”

With the first major wave of immigration in the 1980s some went to work in factories, some even went to work in the circus, but the majority chose dairy farming. Aside from not needing to speak Italian to milk and take care of cows, Amritpal says they were not afraid of hard work or the unsociable hours. “We wake up very early to pray so that’s why it works for us,” he says.

A typical day involves two shifts – approximately 4am-8am then 2.30pm to 6.30pm. It’s common for people to work seven days a week with no holidays, as cows need to be milked every day. Local dairy farmers were impressed by the respect and skill with which the Indians handled their animals. The immigrant workers were impressed by the handsome wages and free housing their employers offered. The economy was booming back then and many Italians were turning their backs on what was considered menial, unskilled work.

There’s more at the link.  Bold underlined text is my emphasis.

I’m really glad that Parmesan cheese continues to be produced in such quantities, thanks to the hard work of Sikh immigrants.  However, the fact that local workers wanted better, less menial work is something to think about – particularly because in March 2015 Italy had an overall unemployment rate of 13% and a youth unemployment rate of a staggering 43%.  If those people can’t find work anywhere else and Italy’s economic support for the unemployed becomes overloaded, some of them may want to return to the farms from which they came;  and if the Sikhs have taken their jobs there, they’re going to resent that and start to fan the flames of anti-immigrant bias and bigotry.

We’re seeing the same conundrum here in the USA.  The progressive, pro-immigration lobby claims that immigrants are only doing the jobs that Americans won’t do.  Anti-immigration forces deny this vehemently, pointing to companies hiring skilled technical staff to replace US workers at half the salary level (Disney being the latest example of the trend).  In more menial occupations, companies can’t afford to pay a living wage to lower-level workers because their customers won’t pay the prices necessary to support higher pay.  I’ve seen a lot of bitching about how mean Walmart is to compensate its hourly-paid employees so poorly;  but if it paid them more, it’d have to raise its prices to levels which its customers wouldn’t pay – and that means its employees would soon be unemployed.  It’s a conundrum to which there’s no easy answer.  Locations such as Seattle, WA that have passed local ordinances to increase the minimum wage are already seeing small businesses close their doors, because they simply can’t afford the higher remuneration levels.

One answer already being applied by companies is to increase their levels of automation, as noted in my previous article.  Automation may not only decrease labor costs;  it may also sidestep or short-circuit arguments concerning immigrant versus local workers.  A machine is neither, so companies using them are suddenly freed from controversy around the latter issues.  That’s yet another reason why automation is becoming a more and more attractive and cost-effective option in the business world.



  1. BTW, I'm an automation and control system engineer. I design, program, and integrate PLC-based control systems for a variety of applications. I use all makes of PLC's (Omron, A-B, Seimens) and various SCADA/HMI's (Wonderware, Seimens, Inductive) as well as drives, motion control, and temperature control.

    I actually said in a job interview several years ago that all of this talk and news coverage about the coming robotics and automation revolution convinced me that being the guy who does the automation was the perfect career choice. They had a laugh over that.

  2. at the risk of rehashing old thoughts… When I went into construction in the early seventies, it did not take long before I was able to buy a house, and take care of myself. I realize housing costs were before land use policies skewed things, but still try doing that today. Two years after starting as a laborer at minimum wage, think about buying a house.

  3. I work in what might be considered a luxury retail store (high-quality, mostly US made, bird feeders/supplies). Feeding the wild birds is definitely a luxury, so presumably the people coming into the store have a fair bit of cash (I know they do, since I often have their addresses).
    A small bird feeder runs 30-50 dollars: good quality construction, lifetime warranty, repairable, lasts 20 years easily. The number of people who balk at that price is astonishing. Yet, not infrequently, they are carrying a coffee from the Starbucks down the street. So, the bird feeder is equal to the price of what 10 coffees maybe? Something doesn't add up. And what it is, I think, is that people don't understand, and certainly don't accept, all the costs of a product.

  4. @Bruce, it depends what part of the country you are in.

    I really dislike increases in the minimum wage, and I have done so every since it was increased to $3.25/hour. This was because I had just gotten a promotion, more work and responsibilities and a pay hike to $3.30/hour. When the minimum wage was increased, most of my increased pay effectively disappeared, but the added work didn't.

    You should not be buying a house or raising a family on minimum wage, at minimum wage you should be a student or just starting out, renting a room. It's as you go up from there that you should be able to live on your own and think about a family. Increasing the minimum wage doesn't increase the pay of the jobs above that level, it just eats into their purchasing power.

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