Another Way Foreign Workers Adversely Impact Domestic Ones

He had a gruff truck driver’s voice, with the hint of Scandinavia you sometimes hear in the Upper Midwest, and he had several thoroughly justifiable grievances about how some temporary foreign workers (H-2Bs) were adversely affecting his life.

He also painted a highly nuanced picture of how temporary foreign workers can cause harm in American labor markets, and shed some light on a specific piece of American agriculture that was brand-new to me (though my grandparents were Midwestern farmers.)

Our highly specific, very down-to-earth 15-minute conversation was, among other things, the best 15 minutes I have spent on the phone in a long, long time, and a nice break from the abstractions of immigration policy, and Washington in general. (I won’t name him or his employer, or even his state, because that might endanger his job.)

Usually when I think about what foreign workers do to a labor market I think in (overly) abstract terms of one-on-one substitution — the alien gets the job and the American loses it. Or lots of aliens arrive and flood the labor market, pushing down wages for any legal residents (citizens and green card holders) still employed in it.

What I usually do not think about are some of the more complex impacts of the foreign workers that our informant (we will call him Bill — not his real name) spelled out for me and my CIS colleague Marguerite Telford. He had called the Center to see if we could help.

The Industry and the Job. Bill drives a 14-wheeler sugar beet truck, routinely moving 30 tons of sugar beets from farm to factory. These beets are nothing like the little red ones you eat for dinner; they vary from the size of a grapefruit to the size of your head, and are, frankly, ugly.

Bill neither harvests the beets, nor participates in the inside-the-factory work where the sugar is made. He simply drives from field to factory, and back (empty) to the field again, usually working 12-hour days four or five days at a time, before taking a mandatory a day or two off. The factories run 24 hours a day from September to March and so the loading and unloading, too, goes on around the clock during those months.

Bill works for a trucking company that contracts with the sugar mill. These are separate entities and his beef is with the former, not the latter. This is unfortunate for Bill, because it is the sugar mills and the farmers that benefit directly from the federal sugar program, not the trucking company. The federal program limits imports of sugar and thus raises the value of domestic sugar but has no impact on secondary elements in the industry, like the trucking.

Bill is paid from $15 to $45 per load of beets, depending on the length of the drive from field to factory. A good 12-hour day, he said, brings him a gross of $200. Bill (and his colleagues) are essentially working on a piece-rate basis and to some extent the amount he can earn depends on factors beyond his control — a snow storm will slow him down, so will the inefficient loading or unloading of the big truck.

The sugar refineries — and this is true of the cane ones, too — all work around the clock as the raw material needs to be handled with some speed; while the product (refined sugar) can be stored for a long time, the beets and the cane eventually lose some of their sucrose content while waiting to be processed.

During the-off season, some of the factory foremen and mechanics are employed to clean up and repair the plants, which are both beat-up and a God-awful mess after going full tilt for four to seven months. (Bill picks up some other work in the off-season, but he counts on the sugar beet work as the mainstay of his economic life.)

The Foreign Workers and Their Impacts. Bill says that the foreign workers are from Mexico, and are identified by management as being in the H-2B program, which has been described in some detail in a report by my colleague David Seminara.

They are supposed to have Class A commercial driver’s licenses and that involves some ability to handle the English language, which Bill doubts many of them have. They appear to be doing the same kind of work Bill does, but they mostly work the night shift. That happens, he says, because if they do something wrong it will not be as visible.

How do they adversely impact Bill and the other local drivers? Here’s the litany I gleaned from our conversation:

  1. Preservation of Existing Wage Levels. “The company does not need to raise wages or improve benefits to get drivers because of the Mexicans; it does not bother to advertise its jobs except in the immediate area,” he said. This is a classic impact of a foreign worker program. 
  2. Denial of Work Opportunities. “The way the H-2Bs hurt me most is that I would like to work five days out of six, but I rarely get more than four,” he said. He attributes this loss of work to the presence of the Mexican drivers. 
  3. Inefficiencies Caused by the Surplus of Drivers. He said that sometimes — because of the presence of the H-2B workers — there are too many trucks in use, and that slows up the loading or unloading process and costs him money; remember, he works on the piece-rate basis. Were he to be working by the hour, these delays would cost the company money, but because of the pay arrangement, the delays hurt only the drivers, not their employer. This is an adverse impact of foreign workers that I had not heard about before. 
  4. Dangers. Bill is worried that the foreign drivers do not know as much as they should about the work to be done and have too little English to cope with some safety regulations. The trucks they drive, all company-owned, are huge and when fully loaded that’s 50 tons hurtling through the night.

Bill’s position on the negative impact of these foreign workers is substantially hampered by a large number of factors, starting with the administration’s loose enforcement of immigration rules. He and his colleagues do not have the leverage of some drivers, who own their own trucks. He feels sure that he would be fired were he to reach out to the Teamsters’ Union. The sugar beet industry is extremely powerful in his area. And he does not, or perhaps not yet, know much about the Mexican drivers, their pay, and their living conditions, all useful data points.

Finally, he is a truck driver, neither a community organizer nor a skilled political operative. But he and some other drivers are working hard on the matter, and we may have more to report on this issue.

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