the audit

BW Oversells Its Story on Americans and Dirty Jobs

November 21, 2011

This Bloomberg BusinessWork cover story from last week on “Why Americans Won’t Do Dirty Jobs” takes an uneven look at the issues surrounding cheap immigrant labor and what happens when states pass strict anti-illegal-immigrant laws.

Uneven because there’s some good reporting here. But ultimately it oversells its case, in that way magazines are wont to do, by using inflated stats on how Americans supposedly won’t do tough work like farm labor. For instance:

“Agricultural labor is basically 100 percent an immigrant job category,” says Princeton University sociologist Doug Massey, who studies population migration. “Once an occupational category becomes dominated by immigrants, it becomes very difficult to erase the stigma.”

“Basically” gives Massey and BusinessWeek a little bit of wiggle room below 100 percent, but not as much as they need. The USDA’s National Agricultural Workers Survey reports that 29 percent of hired cropworkers are Americans by birth (and most of them were non-Hispanic, at least as of 1995, the latest data I found) .

Worse for BW‘s thesis (and its assertion that “Native-born Americans never returned to the fields”), the percentage of America-born cropworkers has risen sharply in the last decade or so. In 1998 and 1999 just 18 percent of hired cropworkers were born in the U.S. or Puerto Rico. That number has jumped eleven percentage points since then. What’s going on there? Sounds like a story to me.

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BusinessWeek does a good job of showing how the jobs it’s talking about pay below-poverty wages for body-destroying labor, and it quotes an Alabama official up high calling the issue a pay problem, but it undermines that by quoting the same professor above blaming the dearth of native workers on a social phenomenon, rather than extremely low pay:

Massey says Americans didn’t turn away from the work merely because it was hard or because of the pay but because they had come to think of it as beneath them. “It doesn’t have anything to do with the job itself,” he says. In other countries, citizens refuse to take jobs that Americans compete for. In Europe, Massey says, “auto manufacturing is an immigrant job category. Whereas in the States, it’s a native category.”

If Massey is to be believed, Americans won’t pick tomatoes, not because they’ll get paid less than minimum wage to do backbreaking work in the hot sun, but because the status of the job is too low. One wonders how they ever find garbagemen, much less Porta-Potty (Honey Bucket, here in the Northwest) cleaners.

Status is worth something, and a functioning market would raise the monetary value of a job to offset the negative nonmonetary value of a lower-status job.

This story has excellent reporting from the fields of Alabama on immigrants making $60 for an eleven-hour day of picking tomatoes, based on their estimates of how many twenty-five-pound baskets they can fill at two bucks a pop. That comes to about $5.45 an hour—and the inexperienced American pickers would make far less than that. The minimum wage is $7.25. You tell me: Is this a status problem or a wage problem? Doubling picking wages would add about 8 cents a pound to the price of tomatoes.

And is it really true that auto manufacturing is an immigrant job category in Europe? Germans can’t find native Germans to make cars for $30 an hour?

Even this anecdote on a catfish processor undermines the magazine’s thesis that “In the wake of an immigrant exodus, Alabama has jobs. Trouble is, Americans don’t want them”:

A large white banner hangs on the chain-link fence outside the Harvest Select plant: “Now Hiring: Filleters/Trimmers. Stop Here To Apply.” Randy Rhodes unfurled it the day after the law took effect. “We’re getting applications, but you have to weed through those three and four times,” says Amy Hart, the company’s human resources manager. A job fair she held attracted 50 people, and Hart offered positions to 13 of them. Two failed the drug test. One applicant asked her out on a date during the interview. “People reapply who have been terminated for stealing, for fighting, for drugs,” she says. “Nope, not that desperate yet!”

The job pays minimum wage to cut up fish, but it got fifty applicants, presumably citizens or legal immigrants. If you pay bottom-of-the-barrel wages, you can’t really complain uch about the quality of your labor.

It makes pretty good sense that whether it’s picking tomatoes in Alabama or picking lettuce in Arizona: If you pay people enough, they’re going to do it.

Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR’s business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.