Local farm laborers, NAFTA, and child labor laws
June 7, 2012
OPINION By JOHN SALISBURY
It is time for a little recap on developments on past articles. The first is that the White House, after facing fierce political pressure from Republicans, rural Democrats and farm groups across the nation has backed off on their draconian child farm labor rules proposed by the Department of Labor.
These rules would have made it almost impossible for youngster under the age of 16, under 18 in many cases, to work on family farms. It was an assault on family farms and tradition that would have disallowed young people to do even common farm family chores. The rules would have discouraged youths from going into farming because once they are all-knowing teenagers the chance to instill caution, safety, responsibility, work ethic, and the desire to be a farmer has long passed.
The rules would have prevented workers under 16 to even clean or lube a tractor let alone be around one that was operating to include lawn and garden tractors. They also would not be able to work around any breeding stock with newborns which raised questions about 4-H and FFA projects. They couldn’t detassel corn (big in Mid-west), work in tobacco crops, or be on a ladder over six feet plus many more not well thought out nanny-state restrictions. Glad to be done with that – for now that is until the next assault.
The second is the 1994 NAFTA agreement included a requirement that Canada, Mexico, and the United States allow full access to each others’ highways.
Pressure from trucking labor unions on claims of unsafe equipment and drivers plus other concerns prevented the implementation for years.
After a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2004, President Bush was able to implement a successful pilot program that revealed that the Mexican long haul trucks were as safe if not safer than U.S. trucks. Newly installed President Obama, under political pressure from the trucker’s union, ended the 18 month program. Mexico retaliated with a severe tariff ($2.4 billion) on the U.S. export goods especially table grapes at 45 percent and wine at 20 percent, near and dear to my heart.
Last summer the tariff was lifted after it was agreed that Mexican trucks could enter the U.S. highway system. To date only one company has trucks crossing the border with another about to. They are allowed in on a three year program.
The big problem is that there is still strong opposition by American labor groups. So having been snake bit once by the Obama administration other Mexican trucking companies, 21 on the list, are biding their time until they can be sure it is safe to gear up for the program. Especially so since the Highway Transportation and Reauthorization bill is working its way through Congress and there is the chance someone could sneak in something to kill the program. So there is no onslaught of these “crazy driven unsafe polluting trucks from Mexico” in the lane next to you. Plus it will be very unlikely because of diligent vehicle inspection stations that will be checking these trucks when they do start coming across the border.
Lastly, ag labor is already in short supply with local farmers seeing tighter labor availability in filling out harvest crews. The farther north you go the harder it is to find to find labor. Some winter fresh tomato growers in the south did not plant some of their intended acres for fear of not having labor to harvest. They have diverted to crops that can be picked by machine.
Other farmers have tried our experiment of hiring citizen labor with the same dismal results. After thinking back on our harvest, I just think it boils down to the modern day unskilled laborer can’t mentally do the same monotonous work hour after hour anymore. Especially so in fairly tough outdoor working conditions even at the $12 per hour average that we paid in cool weather Avila Valley for only an average six to seven hours a day.
We are so hard wired to all the constant action going on around us via email, TV, texting, cell phones that mundane work just doesn’t cut it anymore. It’s ADD on steroids where physical work is required. I know, other than driving tractor for hours, I can’t seem to mentally do the hands-on vine work for very long anymore. Maybe being 70 this year and the damn cell phone going off often has something to do with it!.
I am still going to give it a try again this harvest with the citizen crew and maybe go over to Prado Road with the trolley and recruit. We probably will have lot of turnover on some of the days, especially after payday, and will need to fill in for those that quit. At least they will have some spending money for a while.
There are changing demographics in Mexico with the population getting older with fewer babies born. Except for the Cartel violence, Mexico is doing pretty well economically. There are job opportunities available there and a report from the Pew Hispanic Center has noted that the number of immigrants is down considerably. There may be more people leaving the United States and going to Mexico than the other way around.
Of course, the increased presence of federal agents along the border and the increased danger of crossing illegally because of the Cartels have also slowed illegal immigration. So if this is the trend then it is all the more reason that we need a sensible immigration policy with a certified grower/contractor guest worker program to provide labor for agriculture. That is if we want to pick our crops and you want to eat. Machines can’t do it all with perishable crops.
“In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt” Mary Atwood
John is a 6th generation California farmer whose family has been continuously farmed in California for 160 years. John now concentrates on farming 45 acres of wine grapes in the Avila Valley and Paso Robles producing Salisbury Vineyard wines.