U.S. industry fears immigration policy will hike labour shortage

DES MOINES, Iowa — The irony is hard to ignore.

Rural Americans strongly supported Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election, partly because of his hard-line stance on immigrants and threats to build a wall at the Mexican border.

Meanwhile, farmers and businesspeople in rural America rely heavily on immigrant labour.

In fact, many farms and companies need more foreign workers, not less.

“We have a serious worker shortage in agriculture, in general, and the pork industry is no different,” Dustin Baker, the National Pork Producers Council’s deputy director for economics and domestic production, said during an interview at the World Pork Expo held in early June in Des Moines.

“A supply of domestic workers just does not exist. In talking to our (pork) producers, they cannot find an American worker for these jobs.”

The worker shortage stretches up the value chain, from managing pigs in Iowa barns to meat cutting jobs in the world’s largest pork processing plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina.

As an example of the shortage, Iowa Select Farms, the largest pork producer in the state, lists 114 job vacancies on its website. Almost all of the posted jobs are for a sow farm technician.

Baker said it’s difficult to know what percentage of pork industry workers are immigrants, but it is “significant.”

“On the farm it’s mostly Hispanic labour. In the packing facilities it’s been a mix of Hispanic and Southeast Asian labourers.”

The dairy sector does have data on immigrant labour. In 2015, the National Milk Producers Federation released the results of a dairy farm survey:

  • Fifty-one percent of all dairy labourers in the United States are immigrants.
  • Farms that employ immigrants produce 80 percent of America’s milk.
  • A complete loss of immigrant labour would cause one in six dairy farms to close and cost the U.S. $32 billion in lost economic output.

Baker said the labour shortage in dairy and the fruit and vegetable industries garners most of the attention in Washington, but the pork sector also has challenges.

“Labour is quickly becoming a hot topic for us, particularly after the election.”

John Weber, NPPC past-president and a hog producer in western Iowa, said the pork industry also relies on immigrants for jobs closely related to the sector, such as construction of hog barns.

Pork producers are so dependent on foreign workers that the NPPC is lobbying federal politicians on be-half of undocumented immigrants in the U.S.

“The system should contain workable solutions that allow un-documented workers already in the United States to continue working,” the NPPC says on its website.

Hog farmers and the entire agriculture sector do have a powerful ally in Washington — U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue — who might persuade the White House to adopt more progressive policies on immigration.

“In order for us to have the most affordable food supply in the world, we have to have a viable workforce,” said Baker, who works out of the NPCC office in Washington.

“Secretary Perdue, he understands the need to have a viable workforce.”

Purdue may get it, but in 2016 Trump promised to crack down and kick many of the 11 million undocumented immigrants out of the U.S.

Of those undocumented immigrants, the Pew Research Centre says eight million are part of the workforce.

Luckily for those people and the U.S. agriculture industry, the Trump administration has focused on other priorities during its first five months in office.

Baker said it’s unlikely that immigration reform is around the corner because other issues, such as health care and tax reform, are consuming all the oxygen in Washington.

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