American Culture

More Americans out of work: the unintended consequence of banning migrants

I have remarked on more than one occasion that what business owners want, more than anything, is stability. Companies can deal with high taxes and impossible labour rules as long as they know that the rules will remain consistent. What companies cannot deal with is uncertainty.

Concerned that they may soon loose their source of foreign migrants the California Citrus Research Board has approached Vision Robotics to develop an automated robotic fruit picker to harvest their produce. “The farmers are willing to pay up because they’ve been rattled by a labor shortage over the past few years — California growers tell horror stories of watching their fruit rot on the trees as they waited for the picking crews to arrive.”

Here’s the net result. While pickers may be overwhelmingly sourced from the migrant community there are native US pickers as well. The problem is that there aren’t enough of them. Farmers have a choice: grow products they cannot pick before they go rotten, or find another way to get them picked.

The unintended consequence of making it impossible to hire migrants is that Americans will lose jobs too. The migrants that are being targeted are not the educated ones. They’re the ones who are prepared to perform jobs that are mind-bogglingly dull, repetitive and require no other skills than a pair of hands. These are jobs only available for as long as a machine doesn’t exist to perform the same duty, or doesn’t exist.

Circumstances are changing. If there aren’t enough workers to perform the work, soon machines will. And when that happens the Americans who relied on these unskilled jobs are going to lose them as well.

For want of a nail the shoe was lost, for want of a shoe the horse was lame, for want of a horse the empire fell.

Businesses want certainty, not exploitation of unskilled workers. Take away some of their unskilled workers and they may replace the lot with robots.

7 replies »

  1. Well, the Heisenberg principle may apply here, Gavin, but so does another law – the law of the laborer being worthy of his hire. Using illegal immigrants drives down costs for agri-business, yes – but it also drives down wages for legal workers.

    I tend to agree with Robert Reich, the former U.S. Secretary of Labor – it’s worth paying a few pennies more for fruit if those pennies are being given to the workers who make it possible for the fruit to get to market. But all too often in America, the idea of the “open” market place and laissez-faire “voluntary” controls is manipulated in this country by those at the top of the agri-business to put dollars and more dollars in their already bulging pockets while workers get shat upon. And illegal workers are the tool of manipulation.

  2. “illegal workers are the tool of manipulation”

    That illegals come to the US and are willing to work means that whatever they were getting at home must have been worse.

    “the law of the laborer being worthy of his hire”

    Ah, but now we’re in the realms of market manipulation. And that – as noted – has the consequence of creating robotic workers. I always get a little apprehensive when matters of principle leave everyone worse off.

    For instance, a recent government employee strike here in South Africa (on for a month now) means that – no matter what raise the workers get (within the range between which the unions are asking and the government is offering) – they will never recover the money they lost over the past month.

    And, once the investment is made in robotic fruit-picking, those jobs are lost to human beings forever. I’m not sure how that helps either of the illegal immigrants or the native Americans.

  3. Gavin,

    I remember hearing almost thirty years ago about how automation of processes was going to put thousands out of work and change the workforce forever. While robotics has made tremendous strides and automation has been implemented in factory assembly lines to varying degrees of success, humans are still finding work, shockingly enough.

    This post mostly strikes me as a lot of concern trolling. “ZOMG, we need to bring in guest workers and make them our slaves to keep business going, OR THE ROBOTS WILL TAKE OVER!!!”

  4. Oh, sure, but consider how the nature of work has changed over those 30 years. Blue-collar work is it was then is now the prefecture of illegal immigrants and only the most awkward jobs (i.e. picking squishy fruit) is not automated in some way (although grapes can be harvested autonomously in some parts of the world, even mushrooms are picked that way).

    I’d be first to say that economies benefit when awful jobs are made redundant. However, in the short term … if the debate is about preserving US agricultural jobs, or about illegals taking US jobs away from Americans … well then, we have an entirely different debate.

    I’m saying that the argument isn’t about illegals lowering the wages of US work seekers looking to take the same job. The debate is more about illegals vs automation.

    In other words, more poor Mexicans hankering across the border and angry that their US cousins don’t want them to work there, or letting them in and improving conditions in Mexico through the remittances that migrants send home.

    The arguments used against the migrants (such as they are a manipulative tool to reduce aggregate wages) don’t hold up.

  5. Gavin,

    If your argument is that conditions improve in Mexico through the money immigrants send back, well, then why are they leaving in the first place? 🙂 Eventually there would be enough income for families to increase their purchasing power and put dollars into the economy, but that doesn’t seem to happen.

    Your argument doesn’t hold up any better than mine does–and I’d say mine actually DOES hold up a hell of a lot better. This automation thing is just a distraction.

  6. Of course it improves things. Look at Ireland. For almost 200 years Ireland exported people. Conditions in Ireland, up until very recently, were awful. Gradually things have improved. Now the country can do no wrong.

    The problem with always aiming for short-term solutions is that they don’t work – too many variables – it’s the long-term solutions that work.