Immigration question: are the hard-to-fill jobs too low paying?
January 8, 2019 2:42 PM   Subscribe

I often hear that migrant labor fills jobs that "Americans don't want" or are hard to fill. Is this more true, as a result of our low unemployment rate and people choosing less back-breaking work, or more false, and these jobs under pay in order to keep costs artificially low at the grocery store? Ala, America needs a permanent underclass to ensure I can buy a quart of strawberries for $5.00.
posted by cgs to Law & Government (24 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
The persistent notion as illegal immigrants filling are filling back-breaking migrant farm work that Americans don't want does happen (example), but the majority of illegal immigrants are not farm-workers. Best I can tell, the majority of illegal immigrants take the sort of jobs that are in construction or service work. Think the sort of workers that show up outside Home Depot. So, not exactly high-paying, but also not sub-minimum-wage labor.

So, yes, you get your $5 quarts of strawberries, but you also get workers to rake your backyard paid in cash for $10-$20/hour or cooks in the back of your favorite taqueria.

This is not a value judgement one way or another.
posted by saeculorum at 2:49 PM on January 8 [1 favorite]


In the case with Disney and H-1B visas it was claimed they replaced American workers with migrants through an outsourcing company because they were cheaper not because there was a skill shortage. Any savings would then increase their profit and shareholder value, and probably not reduce consumer prices.
posted by JonB at 2:50 PM on January 8 [1 favorite]


For further context on this, I suggest reading How Many Is Too Many?: The Progressive Argument for Reducing Immigration, where the author follows several immigrants through typical jobs (example - electricians).
posted by saeculorum at 2:53 PM on January 8


For farmwork specifically: Modern Farmer: The High Cost of Cheap Labor
The findings compare the number of unemployed citizens with those who accepted referrals for available NCGA farm jobs, those who showed up for the first day of work, and those who completed the season on a farm: none in 1998 through 2001 and only 11 in 2008, 0.004 percent of all 283,048 job seekers that year.
posted by foxfirefey at 2:55 PM on January 8 [2 favorites]


Also remember that farmwork is skilled labor and that you can't just immediately plop anybody in there and expect them to be productive: Sarah Taber expounds. In order to make a living at it you have to master multiple skills and be able and willing to travel following the different harvests.
posted by foxfirefey at 3:03 PM on January 8 [16 favorites]


Another area that surprised me (then didn't, after I thought about it) is racetrack workers, especially grooms, stall muckers, etc. There was an article about the impact in Puget Sound, which I could find, so here's a link from the San Diego Union Tribune, and the Guardian.
According the sources quoted in the local article, *literally* no one wants these jobs who are NOT migrants; the work is 'too hard', and the pay too low.
posted by dbmcd at 3:07 PM on January 8 [2 favorites]


the majority of illegal immigrants are not farm-workers. Best I can tell, the majority of illegal immigrants take the sort of jobs that are in construction or service work.

Yes, but that's a misleading way of summarizing that study, which shows that farmwork is the category with the single largest percentage of undocumented employment (26% of employees). Pretending that they do not play a highly significant role in U.S. agriculture and that their wage level is thus not relevant to the cost of produce here is just silly.

(Also, most construction is back-breaking labor, and your assumption that transitory day labor isn't being paid sub-minimum wage is based on, well, nothing. And that sweet, sweet $20/hr. in cash paid at irregular intervals which you are imagining is nothing when you are injured on the job and don't have health insurance, disability, or even eligibility for worker's comp, or when you hit retirement age and have paid nothing into Social Security. That kind of labor is, indeed, exploitative [I do judge].)

Ala, America needs a permanent underclass to ensure I can buy a quart of strawberries for $5.00.

That's not where the money being "saved" by employing undocumented labor is mostly going. Remember that PAY IS NOT FIXED. No job is inherently higher- or lower-paying. There is nothing that says that your strawberry picker should be paid $X rather than $Y (except the minimum wage laws). Yes, if workers were better-paid, prices would probably rise to some degree, but (a) there are a whole bunch of positive knock-on effects to that which are being ignored here (primarily: stimulation of demand: poorer people spend more of the money they are paid, which means increased sales for other companies, which means they can hire more workers or pay the workers they have more) and (b) if you think the strawberry company is squeezing the worker primarily to keep costs low rather than to divert the money to other ends, I have a sweet bridge-buying opportunity for you.

Also, anyone who utters the quoted line or its equivalent with a straight face is unfit for civilized society. You shouldn't waste time arguing with them, you should just abstract yourself from their company.
posted by praemunire at 3:46 PM on January 8 [14 favorites]


Pretending that they do not play a highly significant role in U.S. agriculture and that their wage level is thus not relevant to the cost of produce here is just silly.

I make no statement to that effect.

your assumption that transitory day labor isn't being paid sub-minimum wage is based on, well, nothing.

"In 2007, the median annual household income of undocumented immigrants was $36,000, compared with $50,000 for people born in the U.S." Source

Again, this is not to say that illegal immigrants are well-paid, or that abusive conditions don't exist. However, indeed the "average" illegal immigrant is not a sub-minimum-wage migrant farm worker.
posted by saeculorum at 4:00 PM on January 8 [1 favorite]


Child care (especially live-in nannies) is another area where wages have barely moved over the past couple of decades, the work is gruelling with 12 hour days the norm, is often accompanied with isolating the immigrant in their employer’s house, and is rarely filled by Americans with legal rights and other options.
posted by saucysault at 4:10 PM on January 8 [7 favorites]


> Is this more true, as a result of our low unemployment rate and people choosing less back-breaking work, or more false, and these jobs under pay in order to keep costs artificially low at the grocery store?

I think that both of these are true.

Illegal immigrants and other similar "exploitable" labour will work for lower wages and worse conditions and can be exploited in other ways (like illegally withholding pay, as described in the Modern Farmer link above). This pushes down the wages and conditions in those kind of jobs. Then those jobs become "jobs that "Americans don't want"". People with any kind of alternative (social security, relying on family and friends) will opt out of those jobs.

So I think it is both true that 1) "Americans don't want" those kind of jobs and 2) the availability of exploitable labour has suppressed wages and conditions so much that those industries are no longer worthwhile for less-exploitable workers, which does fit the "stealing our jobs" claim if you choose to look at it that way.

It seems to me that the sensible way out of this would be to prevent employers from exploiting these workers, but it is clear that there is little appetite for that from those in power. This would force up wages and improve conditions in these jobs, which might well increase the price of strawberries and childcare (or it might not, see praemunire's comments).
posted by richb at 4:14 PM on January 8 [3 favorites]


The economist Paul Krugman wrote a column on this issue here.

He is looking at the issue from the "why are jobs hard to fill" side rather than the "what are immigrants doing" side, so the perspective is different. Part of his point is that a lot of hard to fill jobs would be easier to fill if the pay were higher.

It's hard to sort out the issues because the immigrant population is very diverse. It includes both the dirt poor trying not to starve to death, but also professionals with university educations.
posted by SemiSalt at 4:44 PM on January 8 [11 favorites]


In the case with Disney and H-1B visas it was claimed they replaced American workers with migrants through an outsourcing company because they were cheaper not because there was a skill shortage. Any savings would then increase their profit and shareholder value, and probably not reduce consumer prices. .

It's pretty disingenuous to call a bunch of software engineers and IT workers "migrants". H1-B, by definition, is a visa for very skilled labor. Also, "cheaper" and "skill shortage" are not mutually exclusive concepts, especially if you always just add "add the salary I want to pay" when it comes to H1-B and "shortage".
posted by sideshow at 5:36 PM on January 8 [6 favorites]


I reflexively roll my eyes a bit at this "jobs Americans don't want" rhetoric.

Labor, like other commodities in a capitalist system, can always be acquired if the purchaser is willing to pay the market price for it.

Some jobs are difficult, dangerous, or unpleasant for various other reasons. Employers have often been able to attract people to these jobs, even at low wages, for a variety of reasons. People need money to pay for life necessities, and most people, if they have no better options, will take an unpleasant, low-paying job because the alternative would be to starve or freeze to death.

However, if a person who has been working an unpleasant, low-paying job has an opportunity to get a better job (whether that means a more pleasant job, or a job with higher pay), they are very likely to take that better job. Their former employer at the unpleasant, low-paying job will probably want to hire someone else to do that job.

Maybe the employer will find someone who is willing to do that job for the same pay as their former employee was receiving, or maybe they won't. If they can't find someone willing to do the job at that pay rate, they could offer a higher rate of pay. If they raise the amount of pay being offered enough, the job they are seeking to fill will become a "better" deal for someone working some other unpleasant/low-paid job, and a person like that will take the job.

Of course, much like you or I would like to pay as little as possible for raspberries or gasoline, employers would like to pay as little as possible for labor. Because of this, they are hesitant to offer higher wages for jobs they are having trouble filling and instead often resort to lobbying for public policies which will increase the number of people who are willing to do unpleasant jobs for low wages.

The same economics apply to more pleasant, higher-paid jobs as well. For example, I have a good (not dangerous, not very physically demanding, relatively pleasant overall) job working with computers, for which I am paid considerably more than the median U.S. wage. My pay is actually significantly below average right now for the kind of work I do, but I prefer to keep working where I do instead of getting a higher-paying job somewhere else because of other reasons. Namely, I like the working environment there, I like the nature of the specific job I do, and I agree with and enjoy working toward the overall goals/mission of my employer.

That being said, there is absolutely a pay rate that would entice me to leave my current job and take a new one working for someone else. I haven't been offered a high enough rate of pay anywhere else to make me decide to quit and go work there, but there is certainly a pay rate that would cause me to make that decision.

If I were to take a higher paying job at another employer, my current employer would need to hire someone else to do my old (current) job. Maybe they could find someone willing to do my job for what they pay me now, or maybe they wouldn't. If they couldn't, they would have fundamentally the same problem as an employer wanting to hire someone to do an unpleasant job for a relatively low wage, and the potential solutions would be much the same; offer more pay, or lobby for public policy changes designed to increase the number of people willing (and able) to do the job at a certain rate of pay.
posted by Juffo-Wup at 5:48 PM on January 8 [7 favorites]


Yeah, conflating work visas with undocumented immigrants is ... not a great look, y'all. cgs, I know you didn't make that mistake, but it's troubling that's immediately where this thread went.

Speaking to H1B/J type visas, which are moderately common in medicine, I'll say that yes, they tend to be in less desirable places (e.g. Appalachia, "flyover zone" or remote rural communities with like one mountain pass that gets snowed in overwinter). This is especially true in the residency training environment, which imposes an extra dollop of forced scarcity onto regular economic decision making. Several years ago, when I was applying, a random attending told me to avoid any program that was >10% foreign medical grads, on the theory that a program filled with FMGs was somehow scraping the bottom of the barrel. (This attending was BS in other ways, so I had no qualms about ignoring that unasked-for advice, but it's a shockingly common view, especially among so-called "elite institutions.")
posted by basalganglia at 5:52 PM on January 8 [4 favorites]


Put a simpler way, the answer to your question, "are the hard-to-fill jobs too low paying?", is yes. The hard-to-fill jobs are too low paying. If the pay were high enough, those jobs would not be hard to fill.
posted by Juffo-Wup at 6:07 PM on January 8 [8 favorites]


Some H1 visas are legit. H1B is prevalent in Silicon Valley and Seattle for workers receiving the same salaries as their US colleagues. Tech talent is hard to come by.

Perhaps off topic for this, but the perception and trashing of H1 as an underclass is one of the reasons I left the US and moved back to Canada. The immigration system in the US is degrading and demoralizing for even the most privileged like me, a highly paid white Canadian living on the blue west coast.

Tech jobs are not hard to fill due to low pay. There is a problem with insufficient supply in the US labour market to meet demand. This is why there are hundreds of thousands of workers on H1, L1, TN, E3, and whatever else under the sun working in the field and often making good money. It’s inefficient for the companies to expand their foreign operations and place the jobs overseas, so the workers are imported. In a global economy both people and capital should be able to move in the interest of efficiency. It’s ridiculous that we make it easy for money and hard for people.
posted by crazycanuck at 6:44 PM on January 8 [4 favorites]


Please don't call me disingenuous. The H-1B is literally a visa for legal migration, why would what the job is for make any difference to what you call it?
posted by JonB at 9:14 PM on January 8 [1 favorite]


In business systems consulting, somehow it is no consolation when the manager laying you off bluntly tells you that it is because they can fill your position with an H-1B employee for half of what it costs them to keep you. This is already when you know that your male counterparts are making more than you are.

"Wow, we never would have gone live at client XXX on-time and on-budget if you hadn't been there, and you did such a great job coordinating and writing the proposal response that won us a big consulting contract with one of the largest financial-sector companies on the planet. But we can pay someone else much less and get away with it so, bye."
posted by Altomentis at 12:47 AM on January 9 [1 favorite]


[Follks, Ask Metafilter isn't for debating each other. Please try to answer the question if you are able; if not skip it. If your information varies from someone else's that's perfectly fine: answer the OP directly with the facts and figures you have found in a way that will help. It's not a debate, and OP can sort out the information for themselves. (That said, do try to parse the question in the way the OP seems to have intended. They ask about migrant labor and its relation to the price of strawberries and a "permanent underclass," so do make a good faith effort to deal with the actual point of the question rather than forcing this into related stuff you feel like talking about.) ]
posted by taz (staff) at 3:00 AM on January 9 [2 favorites]


You might be interested in this episode of This American Life which looks closely (it’s a two-parter) at a company town in Alabama dominated by a poultry factory and the effects when a large number of immigrants begins to move there. What are the effects? Do they bring down wages? Hard to say when one of the most compelling voices in the show, a woman who has worked at the plant in various roles all her life, is paid the same wage that she had in 1976. They get into all the issues: pay, stability, culture, crime, traffic, town politics. ”Our Town” - part one.
posted by amanda at 6:54 AM on January 9 [2 favorites]


Farmworker filter:
In 2010, but the United Farmworkers literally ran a "Take Our Jobs" campaign in which they placed unemployed American citizens in jobs on farms. This 2013 Wyoming Law Review article (pdf) found that out of 8,600 people who expressed an interest in farm work via the campaign site, only 7 accepted jobs. The article also covers a recruitment campaign by the Washington state apple industry that managed to fill 2% of job vacancies.

A 2013 study in North Carolina also found that very few Americans were willing to take farm jobs, justifying the use of H-2A guest worker visas. This was true even in years with 10% unemployment.
posted by momus_window at 10:27 AM on January 9 [3 favorites]


And to address the "is it because pay is too low" - farm work around me typically pays significantly better than minimum wage ($15-20/hour DOE), but it's seasonal, long hours, and it does require skill and physical endurance. Clearly it is too low to get enough Americans interested in it.

There are subcultures of seasonal farm labor that do attract unusual numbers of Americans - I know of trimmers on cannabis farms, sugar beet harvesting, corn detasseling. I think the appeal is a short-term, no-strings job.
posted by momus_window at 10:47 AM on January 9


Thanks, everyone! My question came from the current politics regarding migrants at the border, The Wall, etc, and not about tech workers / H1B. I'm sorry for not making that clear.

Regarding "conflating work visas with undocumented immigrants", I feel like it is all part of the same conversation now, for better or worse. Ala, do we need these people and should we be more open to them? Or is this "need" another name for exploitable labor?

I appreciate the links, and am working through them.

Amanda - I did listen to that TAL series... it was great!
posted by cgs at 2:12 PM on January 10


Another article I read a while ago: "Wages rise on California farms. Americans still don’t want the job". As multiple people have indicated here, no job inherently pays any amount of money. However, supporting policy that increases the cost of food is incredibly unpopular. Further, agricultural groups don't want to increase the cost of their labor.
posted by saeculorum at 3:25 PM on January 10


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