South-Westerns' Economic News Summaries
The Okies in the 30’s, the Mexicans Today
Subject agricultural labor reform in California
Topic Supply and Demand; Labor Markets, Production and Costs
Key Words

California, labor reform, illegal immigration

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Reference ID: A136198186
News Story

In John Steinbeck’s classic novel of the depression called The Grapes of Wrath, Oklahoma residents wiped out by the dustbowl (the Okies) moved to California to earn their daily living picking agricultural products; today, it’s the Mexicans. Same story, same conclusion, apparently.

Recently, several workers have died in California’s intense heat, picking table grapes or other products for 10 hours at a time in the San Joaquin Valley. Earning $7 an hour, plus $0.30 per box of grapes picked, one Latino worker died of heat exhaustion among the vines. This prompted the government to step in, requiring mandatory “shade” for those who have succumbed to the heat, as well as requiring owners to provide 1 quart of water per hour per person working in the fields.

The problem? People leave the Mexican countryside in search of a better life in the U.S. Those with some skills become construction workers, or work in the hotel industry. Those with few marketable skills work in the agricultural fields of California, where it’s estimated that up to 90% of agricultural laborers are illegal immigrants, compared to about 50% of agricultural workers nationwide.

What’s more, the average size of a California farm is less than the national average by about 33% (315 acres compared to 436), implying, perhaps, that these farms are privately rather than corporately owned. This prompts farmers to try to cut costs as much as possible to survive. One form of cost-cutting: hiring a labor contractor, who searches for labor in set amounts at set periods of time. Thus farmers do not have to worry about having too many workers for harvest, or not enough. This practice also places the burden of ensuring that workers are documented immigrants on the contractors’ shoulders. Unfortunately, contractors rarely check documentation or spend much time worrying about their workers’ health.

Politically, agricultural reform is a hot potato. Senators and Representatives duck the issue to avoid looking soft on “border security,” and to appear “pro-business.” An “AgJobs” bill has been moving through the U.S. Senate that would grant temporary legal status to undocumented aliens working in the U.S. for 100 days, and permanent residence if they continue to work for another 360 days over six years. Time will tell if this reform passes.


Indicate with a graph of supply and demand what is happening in the market for agricultural labor in California.

2. What will the new regulation imposed in California do to a farm’s profits? Explain.
3. Discuss the costs and benefits of having undocumented immigrants working in U.S. agricultural fields.
Source “The Grapes of Wrath, Again.” The Economist. 8 September 2005.
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