THE Labor Department has announced $82 million in grants ''to provide employment services to economically disadvantaged migrant and seasonal farm workers.'' Labor Secretary Robert Reich said these funds were intended ''to help them combat chronic unemployment, underemployment, and substandard working conditions.''
Unfortunately, this is yet another instance of government treating the symptom rather than the disease. The problems Secretary Reich cites are the result of too many workers chasing too few jobs - exactly the problem cited by the 1992 report of the Commission on Agricultural Workers, a group set up by Congress to study this issue.
The normal workings of the market in such a situation would lead to fewer and fewer people accepting those jobs, forcing an improvement in wages and working conditions until some kind of equilibrium was reached.
In the case of farm workers, however, this doesn't happen - because the labor pool is kept big (and workers' bargaining power small) through foreign immigration, legal and illegal. More than one-quarter of all adult immigrants who entered the United States labor force during the 1980s were farm workers. And according to last year's National Agricultural Workers Survey, fully 25 percent of farm workers are illegal aliens, while at least 15 percent of the total of such workers, legal and illegal, are unemployed in any given month, even during harvest season.
As the federal government prepares to shell out millions of dollars for farm-worker training and other services, growers in the West are calling for a new initiative to allow in millions more temporary agricultural workers. Their allies in this effort include California Gov. Pete Wilson and Attorney General Dan Lungren, as well as certain members of Congress.
This would be a replay of the Bracero Program, which at its peak in the late 1950s brought in close to half a million Mexican farm workers a year. Another program like this would allow growers to keep wages and working conditions at low levels, creating the need for even more Labor Department largess for unemployed and underemployed workers.
While training workers to improve their skills is a commendable idea, the federal government might have more impact by spending the $82 million on immigration law enforcement. By controlling our border with Mexico (and a study of recent Border Patrol initiatives by the Center for Immigration Studies shows it can be done) and by enforcing the law against hiring illegal aliens, government would provide far more effective assistance to US farm workers.
In fact, certain improvements in immigration enforcement wouldn't cost anything. For example, the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) made employers liable for hiring illegal aliens, but Congress caved in to agricultural interests by adding a provision requiring the Border Patrol to obtain a search warrant before going into a field to check worker documentation. That policy effectively banned open field searches, since workers would be long gone by the time the Border Patrol determined who owned the field and then got a search warrant. Repealing this provision would return an essential tool to the hands of law enforcement.
By shutting off illegal immigration and resisting the temptations of a new guest-worker program, the nation would force growers to make do with the labor supply that currently exists - and to do whatever it takes to recruit and retain workers. When the Bracero Program was finally eliminated in 1964, for instance, growers of Bracero-dependent crops had to increase wages for farm workers 40 percent.
But if this came to pass, wouldn't produce prices rise dramatically? Wouldn't vegetables be available only to the rich?
Actually, nothing of the kind would happen. According to University of California, Davis, agricultural economist Philip Martin, farmers and hired workers who are American citizens do almost 80 percent of the nation's farm work. And even in those perishable crops where immigrant farm workers dominate, labor costs account for less than 10 percent of the retail price of produce. So a doubling of wages in those sectors would translate to less than a 10 percent increase in certain supermarket produce prices.
What's more, ending the growers' nearly endless supply of cheap, docile labor will spur automation and innovation. The result may actually be a decrease in the prices of certain products. For instance, growers in California testified in the early 1960s that ''the use of braceros is absolutely essential to the survival of the tomato industry.'' When the Bracero Program was eliminated anyway, the rate of mechanization increased, helping tomato production quadruple between 1960 and 1990 and leading to a drop in the price of ketchup and similar products.
The price of ketchup may seem trivial, but the equation involved is not: fewer farm workers = more mechanization = higher productivity = lower prices. The math should stifle the scaremongering of the agricultural interests and their allies.
Illegal immigration is a subsidy for farmers, a subsidy in addition to price supports, marketing arrangements, and cheap water - and another guest-worker program would serve simply to increase this subsidy. What's worse, the distortion of our nation's labor market caused by this subsidy requires further subsidies for legitimate farm workers who are harmed.
Some advice for Congress and the administration: Keep the job-training money and enforce the immigration law, enabling America's farm workers to sell their labor in a fair exchange.