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Why Americans Won’t Do Dirty Jobs – from Bloomberg

November 10, 2011

The latest Bloomberg Businessweek profiles Randy Rhodes, owner of Harvest Select, a catfish processor in Alabama. The day Alabama’s strict immigration law, SB 56, went into effect, he lost many of his employees. After driving an hour and half north to where many of his employees live in order to plead with them to return, only a few came back.

“Somebody has to figure this out. The immigrants aren’t coming back to Alabama—they’re gone,” Rhodes says. “I have 158 jobs, and I need to give them to somebody.”

There’s no shortage of people he could give those jobs to. In Alabama, some 211,000 people are out of work. In rural Perry County, where Harvest Select is located, the unemployment rate is 18.2 percent, twice the national average. One of the big selling points of the immigration law was that it would free up jobs that Republican Governor Robert Bentley said immigrants had stolen from recession-battered Americans. Yet native Alabamians have not come running to fill these newly liberated positions. Many employers think the law is ludicrous and fought to stop it. Immigrants aren’t stealing anything from anyone, they say. Businesses turned to foreign labor only because they couldn’t find enough Americans to take the work they were offering.

The article goes on to detail the history of farm labor in the United States.

As late as the 1940s, most farm labor in Alabama and elsewhere was done by Americans. During World War II the U.S. signed an agreement with Mexico to import temporary workers to ease labor shortages. Four and a half million Mexican guest workers crossed the border. At first most went to farms and orchards in California; by the program’s completion in 1964 they were working in almost every state. Many braceros—the term translates to “strong-arm,” as in someone who works with his arms—were granted green cards, became permanent residents, and continued to work in agriculture. Native-born Americans never returned to the fields. “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.”

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.”

. . .

Business owners are furious not only that they have lost so many workers but that everyone in the state seemed to see it coming except Bentley, who failed to heed warnings from leaders in neighboring Georgia who said they had experienced a similar flight of immigrants after passing their own immigration law.

Alabama’s law has put Republican lawmakers who advocated for SB 56 in the unusual position of alienating a major constituency–business groups. Some of those who support the law claim that the undocumented workforce creates market inefficiency by depressing wages. However, businesses counter that they aren’t just competing with other U.S. businesses but a global workforce.

According to Rhodes, the catfish processor,

“I’m sorry, but I can’t pay those kids $13 an hour,” he says. Although the Uniontown plant, which processes about 850,000 pounds of fish a week, is the largest in Alabama and sells to big supermarket chains including Food Lion, Harris Teeter, and Sam’s Club, Rhodes says overseas competitors, which pay employees even lower wages, are squeezing the industry.

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