I wasn’t going to write my usual encomium since his focus wasn’t on infectious disease, which is today’s overwhelming challenge.
But our response to the Wuhan virus has highlighted cross-border vulnerabilities that are relevant to Chavez’s concerns. Just as the current crisis has exposed our dependence on imported medications and medical supplies, it also shines a light on our dependence on imported labor to pick fruits and vegetables.
This vulnerability has been explicitly stated by the federal government. The State Department announced that, while it “temporarily suspended routine visa services at all U.S. Embassies and Consulates,” it would continue to process farmworker visas — and even waive the required in-person interviews with visa officers — because imported foreign farm labor “is essential to the economy and food security of the United States and is a national security priority.”
This echoes the claims of agricultural industry lobbyists that importing farm labor is necessary for “food security.” Such claims are somewhat exaggerated; the majority of our calories come from grains untouched by human hands — corn, wheat, soybeans, etc. — and from fruit and vegetables that will be processed, such as tomatoes for sauce or oranges for juice, whose harvest is also heavily mechanized.
But it remains true that foreign workers (whether H-2A visa-holders or illegal aliens) make up most of the workforce harvesting fruits and vegetables for fresh sale.
If such workers are, like penicillin and face masks, so “essential” that their continued importation in the face of travel restrictions and social distancing is a “national security priority”, then once this crisis is past, the federal government had better take concerted action to remedy that problem.
In other words, both industry and government acknowledge that reliance on foreign workers to harvest our fruit and vegetables is a national-security vulnerability.
What to do? What is the farm labor equivalent of Tom Cotton’s Protecting our Pharmaceutical Supply Chain from China Act?
First, enforce the border, require all farm employers to use E-Verify, and abolish, or at least cap, the H-2A visa program (it is currently unlimited and has ballooned sevenfold in the past 15 years). Limiting farmers’ access to foreign labor would lead to the very responses that Cesar Chavez had hoped for — higher wages (maybe even overtime!), better benefits, and labor-aids (arrangements that make the work easier, such as conveyor belts in the fields). This would improve the lot of current farmworkers and entice some of those who left for the greener pastures (sorry) of city work to come back.
But higher wages alone won’t be enough to secure our agricultural supply chain. To expand the pool of farm workers in the current emergency, farmers in Britain have launched a “Feed the Nation” recruitment campaign, while the government there is launching “Pick for Britain”, inspired by WWII efforts along the same lines. With millions suddenly unemployed, it’s shameful that neither industry nor government in the United States has even considered such an effort.
But something along these lines can help even after the current emergency. To replace foreign labor, not only in agriculture but also in non-farm seasonal jobs, why not a domestic guestworker program? Such an effort would coordinate with programs for ex-cons, recovering addicts, the homeless, even students looking for a challenge, and provide transportation and housing.
But supply-side measures alone still won’t be enough. A long-term food-security program also needs to reduce the demand for labor by encouraging mechanization. It’s true that Chavez’s United Farm Workers union succeeded in the late 1970s in stopping the University of California from conducting research into agricultural mechanization, but Chavez himself claimed he didn’t reject mechanization per se. Once when asked about the subject, he said the following:
Our union is not against automation and machines. The only difference we have with the growers on this question is that we feel technology was given to man by God not only for the privileged few, but to everyone. The dispute is not that machines are coming in. The dispute is that the workers should also be the direct beneficiaries of technology and mechanization.
The concern was that farmers wanted to use mechanization mainly as a means of screwing farm workers, an understandable concern at the time. But the reality today is that even people in Mexico are growing less interested in farm work. Mechanization is the only secure alternative to scouring ever more distant corners of the earth for people still willing to do stoop labor. Chavez’s fears of a dispossessed rural proletariat turn out to have been unfounded — mechanization will reduce farmers’ need for labor in tandem with a shrinkage in the pool of people interested in such work.
Private researchers, manufacturers, lenders, et al., will be the main engines of mechanization, but the security imperative means the government has an essential role in accelerating the process. Options include resuming funding for mechanization research and offering guaranteed and/or subsidized mechanization loans for farmers.
A secure agricultural supply chain will also achieve Cesar Chavez’s goals of better-paid, more-stable jobs for farm workers. Sí se Puede!