We hear in the media and from "conservatives" that, to afford fruits and vegetables, agricultural workers must be paid poverty wages and therefore we "need" illegal immigrants to do this work because Americans won't. This is false.
For tomatoes and Granny Smith apples, paying 10 times as much would raise their prices by 16 cents/lb and 12.3 cents/lb, respectively.
What would 10X wages be?
They would be $125,000/yr and $192,000/yr, respectively!
Would plenty of Americans work for that (or half of that)?
You betcha! See below.
Note added 12/6/09: Poverty wages, which have nothing to do with keeping fruit & vegetable prices low, are why families even need their children to work in the fields to make ends meet.
Blueberry Farming Giant Found to Use Child Labor at Michigan Fields 11/4/09, Democracy Now!
... we discovered a pervasive pattern, really across the country, of a situation that has continued for decades and has gone unenforced. There are laws against children this young working in agricultural fields. But for the most part, until very recently, those laws were largely ignored by federal authorities at the Department of Labor. ...
... Were quite used to seeing ... what the families go through, as far as bad housing conditions, dangerous working conditions, being drastically underpaid, not being paid at all, in some cases being held in almost slave-like conditions by certain unscrupulous crew leaders.
We hear in the media that companies can't afford to pay higher than poverty wages to agricultural workers. We hear they "need" illegal immigrants to do this work because, if producers pay decent wages, we won't be able to afford farm produce. The argument goes on to say Americas won't do those jobs because they can only be done at such low pay.
|A migrant worker picks oranges at a grove in Bradenton, Fla. Many of the agricultural products in the area are planted, harvested and processed by immigrants, both legal and illegal. Photo by Phillippe Diederich/Getty Images|
This goes virtually unquestioned, but none of it's true.
It's so generally accepted that I was initially shocked at the truth: Farm workers could be paid ten times as much, over $125,000/year, and the increase in price for tomatoes would 16 cents/lb and for apples 12.3 cents/lb.
Here's the explanation, but first here's some data on wages for picking tomatoes and apples.
In Florida many tomato pickers have not had a pay raise in over 20 years. They earn between 40-50 cents for each 32-pound bucket they pick. And they can pick 4000 lbs/day; that's 2 tons. Amazing. Simple arithmetic reveals that a worker is paid $0.50 / 32 lbs = 1.5625 cents/lb, $62.50/day (for an 8 hour day), or a full-time rate of $12,500/yr (assume 200 work days in a year). Note: The link for tomatoes above is no longer active, here find a $0.45 number.
For picking Granny Smith apples a husband-and-wife team can fill a 900-pound bin in half an hour (that's 14,400 lbs/day). The pay is $12 dollars/bin. So workers are paid $12 / 900 lbs = 1.33 cents/lb, $96/day/person, or a full-time rate of $19,200/yr/person.
Here's more simple arithmetic for 10 times greater wages.
For tomatoes, paying 10 times as much ($5.00 / 32 lbs), adding 12.4% (6.2% each for employer and worker) Social Security, would mean ($5.00 * 1.124) / 32 lbs = 17.6 cents/lb. That's (17.6 - 1.6) = 16 cents/lb extra cost per pound.
Wages: ($5 / 32 lbs) * 4000 lbs/day * 200 days/year = $125,000/year.
For Granny Smith apples, paying 10 times as much gives ($120 * 1.124) / 900 lbs = 15 cents/lb. That would be (15 - 2.7) = 12.3 cents/lb extra cost per pound.
Wages: ($120 / bin) * 8 bins/day/person * 200 days/year = $192,000/year.
If, at these wages, tomatoes and Granny Smith are $1.99/lb, then paying ten times greater wages would result in the price of tomatoes going to $2.15/lb and apples going to $2.12/lb.
Would shoppers stop buying tomatoes and apples at those increased prices? No.
Would you have plenty of people willing to pick tomatoes and apples at pay rates of $125,000/yr or $192,000/yr? You betcha.
The scare-mongering, "Oh my God, we won't be able to afford fruits and vegetables if workers are paid decent wages," is unwarranted.
Note on farm policy, "free trade" agreements, and poverty wages in America:
While this relates to illegal immigration, it's not the main issue here. Illegal immigration is the result of a combination of Farm Policy Failure and "free trade" agreements like NAFTA.
It also relates to why there are such low wages in America anyway. It's because There's no 'free market' for Labor. Such low wages are made possible by maintaining vastly more people needing work than there are jobs. See also Unemployment: Official, Effective, Real and sections of Response to a Conservative.