Will Americans do the hard jobs any more?

I have to admit, I’ve always discounted the argument by advocates for illegal immigrants (or ‘undocumented workers’, as they euphemistically refer to them) that “they’re only doing the jobs Americans won’t do”. Unfortunately, it appears there may be more than a little truth to that argument, according to this report from Bloomberg Businessweek.

Skinning, gutting, and cutting up catfish is not easy or pleasant work. No one knows this better than Randy Rhodes, president of Harvest Select, which has a processing plant in impoverished Uniontown, Ala. For years, Rhodes has had trouble finding Americans willing to grab a knife and stand 10 or more hours a day in a cold, wet room for minimum wage and skimpy benefits.

Most of his employees are Guatemalan. Or they were, until Alabama enacted an immigration law in September that requires police to question people they suspect might be in the U.S. illegally and punish businesses that hire them. The law, known as HB56, is intended to scare off undocumented workers, and in that regard it’s been a success. It’s also driven away legal immigrants who feared being harassed.

Rhodes arrived at work on Sept. 29, the day the law went into effect, to discover many of his employees missing. Panicked, he drove an hour and a half north to Tuscaloosa, where many of the immigrants who worked for him lived. Rhodes, who doesn’t speak Spanish, struggled to get across how much he needed them. He urged his workers to come back. Only a handful did. “We couldn’t explain to them that some of the things they were scared of weren’t going to happen,” Rhodes says. “I wanted them to see that I was their friend, and that we were trying to do the right thing.”

His ex-employees joined an exodus of thousands of immigrant field hands, hotel housekeepers, dishwashers, chicken plant employees, and construction workers who have fled Alabama for other states. Like Rhodes, many employers who lost workers followed federal requirements—some even used the E-Verify system—and only found out their workers were illegal when they disappeared.

In their wake are thousands of vacant positions and hundreds of angry business owners staring at unpicked tomatoes, uncleaned fish, and unmade beds. “Somebody has to figure this out. The immigrants aren’t coming back to Alabama—they’re gone,” Rhodes says. “I have 158 jobs, and I need to give them to somebody.”

There’s no shortage of people he could give those jobs to. In Alabama, some 211,000 people are out of work. In rural Perry County, where Harvest Select is located, the unemployment rate is 18.2 percent, twice the national average. One of the big selling points of the immigration law was that it would free up jobs that Republican Governor Robert Bentley said immigrants had stolen from recession-battered Americans. Yet native Alabamians have not come running to fill these newly liberated positions.

. . .

Why try to make Americans do this work when they clearly don’t want it? “They come one day, and don’t show up the next,” Castro says.

It’s a common complaint in this part of Alabama. A few miles down the road, Chad Smith and a few other farmers sit on chairs outside J&J Farms, venting about their changed fortunes. Smith, 22, says his 85 acres of tomatoes are only partly picked because 30 of the 35 migrant workers who had been with him for years left when the law went into effect. The state’s efforts to help him and other farmers attract Americans are a joke, as far as he is concerned. “Oh, I tried to hire them,” Smith says. “I put a radio ad out—out of Birmingham. About 15 to 20 people showed up, and most of them quit. They couldn’t work fast enough to make the money they thought they could make, so they just quit.”

Joey Bearden, who owns a 30-acre farm nearby, waits for his turn to speak. “The governor stepped in and started this bill because he wants to put people back to work—they’re not coming!” says Bearden. “I’ve been farming 25 years, and I can count on my hand the number of Americans that stuck.”

It’s a hard-to-resist syllogism: Dirty jobs are available; Americans won’t fill them; thus, Americans are too soft for dirty jobs. Why else would so many unemployed people turn down the opportunity to work during a recession? Of course, there’s an equally compelling obverse. Why should farmers and plant owners expect people to take a back-breaking seasonal job with low pay and no benefits just because they happen to be offering it? If no one wants an available job — especially in extreme times — maybe the fault doesn’t rest entirely with the people turning it down. Maybe the market is inefficient.

Tom Surtees is tired of hearing employers grouse about their lazy countrymen. “Don’t tell me an Alabamian can’t work out in the field picking produce because it’s hot and labor intensive,” he says. “Go into a steel mill. Go into a foundry. Go into numerous other occupations and tell them Alabamians don’t like this work because it’s hot and it requires manual labor.” The difference being, jobs in Alabama’s foundries and steel mills pay better wages — with benefits. “If you’re trying to justify paying someone below whatever an appropriate wage level is so you can bring your product, I don’t think that’s a valid argument,” Surtees says.

. . .

The notion of jobs in fields and food plants as “immigrant work” is relatively new. As late as the 1940s, most farm labor in Alabama and elsewhere was done by Americans. During World War II the U.S. signed an agreement with Mexico to import temporary workers to ease labor shortages. Four and a half million Mexican guest workers crossed the border. At first most went to farms and orchards in California; by the program’s completion in 1964 they were working in almost every state. Many braceros — the term translates to “strong-arm,” as in someone who works with his arms — were granted green cards, became permanent residents, and continued to work in agriculture. Native-born Americans never returned to the fields. “Agricultural labor is basically 100 percent an immigrant job category,” says Princeton University sociologist Doug Massey, who studies population migration. “Once an occupational category becomes dominated by immigrants, it becomes very difficult to erase the stigma.”

Massey says Americans didn’t turn away from the work merely because it was hard or because of the pay but because they had come to think of it as beneath them. “It doesn’t have anything to do with the job itself,” he says. In other countries, citizens refuse to take jobs that Americans compete for. In Europe, Massey says, “auto manufacturing is an immigrant job category. Whereas in the States, it’s a native category.”

There’s more at the link. I highly recommend reading the whole article to get a broader perspective on the problem.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers here. I’m an immigrant myself (although a legal one), and I strongly support preventing illegal immigration and evicting those who come here illegally. Nevertheless, there does seem to be a real need for a legal ‘guest worker’ program, to provide work visas for laborers like those referenced in the article. I totally agree that we’ve got to improve border security and get rid of illegal aliens – but we also, simultaneously, need to address the other half of the equation, otherwise we’re simply going to create more problems than we solve.

I also believe that welfare benefits need to be structured so that it isn’t more profitable for the unemployed to live on them rather than go out and find work, no matter how hard or unpleasant it may be. I suspect a large part of the reason that American workers don’t want these jobs is that they can afford to turn them down, thanks to the social ‘safety net’ provided by the burgeoning ‘welfare state’ and entitlement programs. If we could get people back to work, those programs could be cut back to more reasonable levels.

What say you, readers?



  1. I think you've provided a pretty balanced, carefully-reasoned point of view. In fact, it's one of the best depictions of both sides of the argument that I've read, and I agree with your conclusions thus far.

    Well done, sir.

  2. If the middle man did not take all the huge profits. Then the farmer might well be able to pay more.
    Once again Wall Street and other sales positions are robbing the rest of us blind !
    The farmer is working on a very slim margin, not so the brokers.

  3. If you can't find workers to work at the wage that you are offering, then that is what we call a "market signal." The solution is to raise the wage, not to bring in workers that are forced to take a, by definition, below market wage by virtue of their legal status.

  4. Guest worker is the key description. Guests don't have babies at your home and establish legal status for their children. They, also, aren't placed on your health insurance plan. If they misbehave, they leave and don't come back.

  5. If you can't find workers to work at the wage that you are offering, then that is what we call a "market signal." The solution is to raise the wage, not to bring in workers that are forced to take a, by definition, below market wage by virtue of their legal status.
    The counterargument to which, of course, is that if you can't find someone to employ you at the wage you're demanding, then that is what we call a "market signal." The solution is to lower your demands, not require protectionist legislation to artificially prop up your value.

    Markets work both ways.

  6. My solution is to stop paying able-bodied adults to continue to take in air and sit on the couch, and they will start to think that a minimum wage job is a step up from welfare.

    I don't think it was difficult to get agricultural workers in Alabama in the days before politicians figured out you can get re-elected by promising bread and circuses.

  7. I agree wholeheartedly with the last paragraph of the post and DaddyBear. Generations of Americans with a sense of entitlement would quickly appreciate any paying job if they were hungry or living on the streets. Our government rewards people for being deadbeats.

  8. These people need to advertise in Michigan since the state has now mandated that there is a four year lifetime limit to receiving welfare. Retroactive. Not starting right now.

    Michigan has a very high unemployment rate and I guess if people want to eat something more than just what church food pantries can supply, they know where to go to get a job in a low cost-of-living area; Alabama.

    Not to mention the weather is a lot nicer in the winter.

  9. Back in the depression of 1982, in Oregon at least, once you were on the 13 weeks of federal extended benefits, if you refused a job offer you could lose your ability to collect unemployment benefits. And you had to report at least one job contact every day.

    Granted, that one contact per day requirement wasn't trying real hard, but back then there just weren't many jobs even available. And people really did try, at least once they hit the extended benefits. While on the first 26 weeks of state benefits a person could refuse a job offer that paid less than their previous job. Not so once on the federal benefits.

    And once the 39 weeks was up, there were no further extensions of benefits. People were much more motivated to work.

    The welfare mentality and government entitlement programs are destroying this once great nation.

  10. I second DaddyBear's comment, after reading Freakonomics books you start to think about how incentives effect outcomes. It isn't that Americans won't do the work for that wage, it's that the incentive to not work and collect government benefits is greater for the majority. There's no single solution. Just like whether we should build a fence or not… a fence would be a waste of money, aslong as the incentives of anchor babies and plenty of businesses willing to hire illegal immigrants exist, they will always find a way here. Trying to legislate compassion for everyone results in success for no-one

  11. Yes, I am one of those nuts who believes Obama's agenda is Marxist, which is why he is letting our country implode. The 9th point of the Communist Manifesto reads: "Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of the distinction between town and country, by a more equable distribution of the population of the country." Take a guess what that means, then compare that to what is happening in China right now, and the disaster in Russia.
    Alabama's illegal immigration law was their way to solve a dire problem, unable to foresee the actual result.
    I find it incredible that there are so many unemployed people, unwilling to work in fields.
    I became child labor when we came to Canada and my mom took a job as a gardener for over a year. There was nothing else, and she had to support five children. We survived. Things will change, but for now, right this moment, we will have to bite the bullet. Thank God time does not stand still.:)

  12. Certainly, a guest worker program.

    Most Americans will NOT work for minimum wage (as you say, although I know you can pick up a truck load of 'immigrants' for less than minimum wage to do backbreaking work).

    Neither will Americans live 6 to a room with no hot water. Illegals will. And gladly. Considering the conditions many of them come from, that is a step up.

    I am sad that is the case. I hate that people live in abject, hopeless poverty in so much of the world and through no fault of their own except their poor choice of birth location.

    This does not mean that the US needs to be brought down to the level you see just across the Southern border (and unfortunately, creeping ever Northward).

    It will be interesting to see how Alabama residents feel when prices go up on construction of new homes, maintenance of those 'high dollar' properties and all the other hidden jobs that illegals do for dirt wages.

    I hope they don't whine. We should not be importing third world poverty to the US. Alabama is doing the right thing. I wish Texas would follow suit

  13. They couldn’t work fast enough to make the money they thought they could make, so they just quit.

    Curious comment from the land-owner, no?

    How, exactly, does he structure his compensation?

    Of course, if one lives in a one-bedroom apartment with 3 other families, one can make do.

  14. 1. Guest worker program. Insure that NO pregnant person is allowed into this program (The reason is obvious and left to the student as an exercise.)

    2. Restructure welfare. Let me pose a hypothetical question:

    Option A: You are given $100.00. You can just take the $100.00 and read a book all day, watch soap operas, or just do any other thing you like (even make babies).

    Option B: You are given $100.00 but only after you work 8 hours in a field picking tomatoes.

    Which option would YOU choose?

    More than the 'illegal alien' (Oh, excuse me, 'undocumented' alien) problem needs to be addressed…

  15. On the gripping hand…

    I find it incredible that there are so many unemployed people, unwilling to work in fields.

    I became child labor when we came to Canada and my mom took a job as a gardener for over a year. There was nothing else, and she had to support five children. We survived.

    Trailbee: I'm specifically picking on your comment here because you're the one who brought up Marxist agrarian policies.

    So, you lament that these people won't take these jobs at whatever price the farmers are offering. But what better way to implement that Agrarian Paradise than to create policies at a federal level that contribute to unemployment, wait until lots of people are on the welfare rolls, kick out the illegals, and then pull the welfare rug out from under the unemployed?

    "You don't work, you don't eat. And hey, look at all those unpicked tomatoes. Better move out of the city and to the country, comrade."

  16. When we read these posts our brains are working on something specific. To perlhaqr: my point is that our entire present economy is stalled, and if it stalls just a little longer, leftists will have us all for a song. No, I do not think all the unemployed should just go out and pick tomatoes, or whatever, but it is an option for some, and physical labor in most cases won't kill us.
    Whether many like it or not, they will be forcibly moved out to the country to become an army of field workers. Period. Personally, I'm not really crazy about that, and I bet lots of those Future Farmers of America aren't either.

  17. I picked strawberries in summer as a teenager, it was hard work but paid okay. Over 35 years later, the same farm is offering the same rate for picking strawberries. Since the value of money has shrunk by at least 4 (what I could buy with a quarter then is at least a dollar now), the actual wages are 25% of what they were. Is it surprising that Americans won't go for that deal? It's only the illegals that make this possible.
    During the school year I also mowed lawns for neighbors. The illegals tried to move in on that by force. Dad 'explained' what a bad idea that was and they left me alone. After I left for the military, they took it over, of course. That's another traditional youth job that's practically gone.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *