Photo by Army Spc. Megan Burnham
If there is one common language across the food system in America, from the fields to the dishwashing rooms, it is not English, it is Spanish.
Immigrants from Mexico and Central America are an integral part of U.S. agriculture. They work in food processing and slaughterhouses; they are milkers and cheesemakers; they prepare and serve food. They also make up the vast majority of the people rounded up and deported by the U.S. government.
Over and over again, I have heard farmers, business owners and restaurant owners say they cannot find American workers willing to work as hard as immigrants (or for as little pay, they always forget to add). Why, then, do they not advocate for immigration reform?
The answer can be found by comparing the minimum wage for an agricultural worker on an H2A visa to the wages of undocumented workers who often do the same jobs. Since I live in the Dairy State, let’s take milkers as an example.
The minimum wage in Wisconsin for 2015 for an agricultural worker in the country legally on an H2A visa is $11.56 per hour. But a 2013 report found that milkers in Wisconsin make between $8.25 and $9.75 per hour, and about half of the dairy workforce is undocumented. The majority of milkers are being paid less than what they would earn if they were here legally.
Furthermore, undocumented workers cannot organize, are unlikely to complain, and can be fired if they get injured on the job. In one Wisconsin case, Palermo’s Pizza of Milwaukee called for an immigration audit after workers tried to organize to improve safety, wages and working conditions, and about 75 workers were fired. The National Labor Relations Board found that the company acted legally—except for a handful of fired workers who were documented.
So apart from the fact that it is cheaper to hire undocumented workers than workers with H2A visas, you can treat them however you like. While many employers do treat their workers well, the point is that they do not have to.
In theory, it is a violation of federal law to hire undocumented workers, punishable by civil fines and criminal penalties if done as a pattern or practice. Yet despite rhetoric that the Obama Administration has increased audits of employers, a report by the Office of the Inspector General of Homeland Security criticizes Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for frequently issuing warnings rather than fines to employers. And when fines are imposed, they are reduced by an average of 40 percent through “negotiations.”
Hiring undocumented workers is in fact a systemic pattern and practice of agriculture and the food industry. When I tell people in the local food movement that I have spoken to undocumented workers who work at one of their favorite local food restaurants, they respond that “obviously” the owner or chef did not know they were undocumented.
But I have also seen the workers’ pay stubs from local restaurants. Some are handwritten notes that contain neither the name nor address of the business or employee, no hours or Social Security number, just the total pay and an amount deducted for unspecified “taxes.” It seems pretty clear these employers know exactly what they are doing.
Fundamentally, our food system depends on these immigrant workers. Our food system literally could not function without them. We need immigration reform that acknowledges and gives basic rights to the people who feed us.
Lydia Zepeda is a professor in the UW-Madison’s Department of Consumer Science. She is a volunteer translator for the UW Law School's Family Court Clinic and the Immigrant Justice Project.