Washington State Wants You to Pick Apples

According to this article, the fruit industry in washington state is in trouble because of  immigration crackdowns. It’s getting to the point where farmers are offering *gasp* halfway decent wages for pickers! In some spots, the pay is still hovering around minimum wage with little to no housing provided. Other farms are going as high as $30/bin (totaling incentive pay) and adding housing to the mix.

I find this part of the article interesting:

“The governor returned home Friday after leading a 15-member delegation of farm group representatives to the nation’s capital. They urged members of Congress to oppose a Republican bill that would force employers to use a federal database called E-Verify to determine whether their employees are eligible to work in the United States. Gregoire criticized anti-illegal-immigration rhetoric prevalent in Washington, D.C., saying Congress should instead be focused on ways to get more foreign workers to help with harvesting.”

This bothers me for two reasons:

1) It confirms, in my opinion, that the unstated reason wages for picking are going up is because farmers know they have to make it worthwhile for WHITE PEOPLE to do this job.

2) By asking Congress to bring in more foreign workers, I believe Gregoire is saying, in that coded way white people do when we talk about race, that our lawmakers should know by now that “certain (white) folks” are just not going to do some jobs.

Doubtless the farm industry is in a bind. It seems the entire industry assumed they would always have access to undocumented labor without problems. If the stats in this article are correct, out of 1.4 million farm workers, about 60% are undocumented. That is a slanted business model and was bound to tip over when your main price control relies on paying people of color exploitatively low wages.

There is another issue that just came to my attention. I have been writing this post under the basic assumption that E-Verify actually works consistently. Silly me! This page from the Asian American Legal Advocacy Center of Georgia popped up:

It’s a general page about E-Verify that includes a 2008 report from Homeland Security detailing what the program does and does not do well. Some things found in this 338 page report include:

1) Although much improved since the last evaluation, the erroneous TNC rate for foreign-born citizens (3.2 percent) remains well above the rate for U.S.-born workers (0.1 percent). (pg 281)

2) Among Web survey employers, 17 percent reported restricting work assignments until employment authorization was confirmed (Exhibit VIII-9), 15 percent reported delaying training until employment authorization was confirmed, and 2 percent reported reducing pay during the verification process. These results are similar to what was reported in the Web survey in 2006, where the corresponding results were 22, 16, and 2 percent. All of these adverse actions are prohibited by the statute behind the E-Verify Program. (pg 205)

3) The only language besides English used in producing E-Verify materials for workers at the time the report was written was Spanish. Furthermore, the high literacy level of the documents limits understanding by persons with fairly limited reading and/or language skills. Of the 126 workers that commented on their understanding of the TNC notice, 26 reported that they did not understand the content. Among these 26 workers, 10 specified that the terminology in the notice was too difficult to understand, and seven said that they did not understand the notice because it was not in the language they primarily spoke (six of them specified Spanish as their primary language, meaning that their employers were not using the Spanish TNC notice that is provided by the system). (pg 248)

Other issues employees face included incurring high financial costs for contesting results, not being notified of a problem by their employer, and not being told they had the right to appeal an E-verify result.

Washington State farmers say that we should learn from the results of Georgia’s mandatory E-verify law. How’s that been working for them? Here’s a quote from Frank Sherry, Executive Director of America’s Voice Education Fund:

“Washington take note. Judging by Lamar Smith’s ‘logic,’ unemployed Americans by the thousands should be flocking to Georgia to line up in the fields to fill the labor void left by the experienced immigrant workforce that has fled due to the state’s law. Instead, Georgia is learning–through rotting food and higher prices–that short-sighted laws have consequences, that workers aren’t interchangeable, and that yes, in fact, immigrant workers are the backbone of our nation’s agriculture industry. As Georgia makes clear, mandatory E-Verify isn’t a jobs program, it’s an economic disaster of the highest order and a full-fledged assault on one of America’s prized industries.” Source

Short-sighted laws have consequences. What a wonderful thought.

Is there a better way to handle this situation? One that guards the safety and rights of the workers? Senator Dianne Feinstein (CA) and the folks at Farmworker’s Justice think so. The AgJobs program has not been passed yet, but is gathering a broad base of support, most likely because it’s a well thought out answer to this problem. Here is more information on this program, direct from the FWJ website.

As you can probably tell, I’m starting to run out of steam, but I have one more link for you to follow. If you live in Washington, are out of work/underemployed, and think you might want to try your hand at picking fruit, here is the page with all of the jobs and contact information you need to make this decision.