Tuesday night driving home I heard a story about apple picking on NPR, a station I listen too more frequently now that I don’t have to worry about hearing Juan Williams. Set in Washington state, the 4 minute radio piece (which is available to read and listen to HERE) included interviews with the orchard owner and the migrants from Mexico who pick the apples. This one story could serve as a case study in the complexity of the issues facing the US economy. Consider this:
I assume the Mexicans in the piece were here legally otherwise granting a radio interview would seem risky behavior. The apple-growers don’t always use legal workers, however. Last year, the Feds checked out a neighboring orchard and ended up deporting 500 illegal immigrant workers. The farmer interviewed for this piece all but admitted that he has to use illegal immigrants to pick his apples since the method of obtaining immigrant workers legally – a visa system – “is too expensive, and the other alternative — hiring Americans — is a fantasy.”
Why is it a fantasy? Because the wages are so low. A worker gets paid $15 per “bin” but a bin equals one thousand pounds of apples. Under the laws of capitalism, with a labor shortage (caused by a crackdown on illegal immigrants), the employer should raise the rates he pays to attract the needed employees. To cover the higher labor costs, the employer would have to raise the price he demands for his product. But the grower claims that if he raises the price for his crop, apples from Chile and New Zealand will be cheaper and he won’t be able to sell any of his which means he’d be out of business.
From the grower’s perspective, the US government is sticking it to him by regulating his ability to hire cheap immigrant labor. He’s probably extra incensed that he’ll soon have to pay for health insurance for these workers, as well, under health care reform. I don’t have a lot of sympathy for him. He’s unwilling to pay employees a living wage and he’s content to have the rest of us pay for the health care of his employees when they show up at the emergency room, sick and uninsured. He’s willing to apply the cold cruel rules of capitalism to those he wants to hire but not apply them to himself.