The Argument Against Agricultural and Food Processing Guestworkers During a Pandemic

By Dan Cadman on April 18, 2020

My colleagues at the Center have in many recent postings (see, e.g., here and here) questioned the value of importing cheap foreign temporary workers for any purpose during staggering unemployment: Claims have hit the 22 million mark in about a month's time due to massive layoffs from the coronavirus-related economic shutdown.

The agriculture and food-processing industries have argued that temporary workers are critical to maintaining the supply chain, leading the president to echo the claim and authorize additional expedited admissions while asserting that they will be carefully monitored. This is a doubtful proposition given that there aren't enough healthcare workers, masks, ventilators, trustworthy test kits, ad nauseam, to go around — not to mention the difficulty of routinely contacting such individuals in the remote rural areas in which they work. Even meat and poultry processing plants are often in the middle of nowhere, lest middle-class sensibilities be disturbed by what might otherwise be seen, heard, or smelled.

This dubious capacity to monitor is echoed by the reliably liberal Huffington Post, which published an article outlining the fears among farmworkers, who are described as "petrified":

The precautions recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are virtually impossible to carry out on many farms. Fields and orchards provide plenty of space for social distancing, but labor camps and transportation tend to be unsanitary and crowded. Depending on the size of the farm, a single housing unit can hold 200 workers or more. There are no federal guidelines governing what a farmer should do if they don't have space to quarantine sick workers or how those who may have the virus can access affordable health care.

Those fears of a rapid spread of infection have already translated to reality at several of the country's largest food processors scattered among several states, where outbreaks have occurred (see here and here). Interestingly, one of those spared, at least so far, has been Costco's poultry processing operations, where they produce the tens of millions of chickens that end up as rotisserie in store shelves nationwide. The apparent reason? Investment in state-of-the-art mechanization that has reduced reliance on humans to the bare minimum.

This leaves us to ponder two significant questions:

First, when an infected worker vacates his job due to illness, who takes his place? Does this become just another visa application to be filled out in a giant slot system where thousands of guestworkers arrive, get infected, and are replaced by others equally disposable?

Second, what happens to infected farm- and food-processing workers? The answer seems to be that they are cast upon the already beleaguered local health systems for care, with the costs to be absorbed by federal and state taxpayers, not the corporate entities that own the farms, fields, orchards, and processing plants.

If, as has been asserted by the State Department in expediting the visa issuance of such workers, food production is a matter of national security, then using guestworkers to fill the gap is destined to fail because both the morality and the functional utility of such a system of food production and distribution are beyond doubtful.

As my colleague Mark Krikorian argued in his 2008 book, The New Case Against Immigration, as well as in a recent piece penned for National Review, a significant part of the answer lies in mechanization. It's disturbing that since Krikorian wrote the book in 2008, our agricultural and food industries are not much farther along that road because of their addiction to cheap, expendable foreign labor. The Costco processing plant is a shining exception to the rule. That it has not been forced to close because of the pandemic shows the benefits for a company or agricultural enterprise that weans itself from the illusory lure of bulk workers over mechanization and robotics.

Whether or not other food producers and processors follow Costco's example may depend in some large measure on how the federal government reacts. If food production is a matter of national security — and assuredly it is — the president's response is the wrong one. The outbreaks and processing plant closures to date show that increased reliance on foreign workers won't work because, of course, they too are susceptible to communicable diseases. By importing them in the tens of thousands, we merely add to the sum total of confirmed cases in the United States as they fall ill or perhaps die from lack of adequate care in the remote areas where they work.

As I wrote in Conservative Review a few days ago, as Congress mulls additional coronavirus relief legislation, one method of inducing agricultural and food processing industries to change is by making available a variety of low-interest loans, tax credits, and other forms of relief for the purchase of mechanizing equipment, conditional upon the recipient agreeing to forgo use of the various "H" temporary guestworker programs in exchange.