Thursday, November 10, 2011

Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap

Business Week seems to have forgotten the second half of the title of the iconic AC/DC song in this long but interesting article on the changing face of the American work force. The new heavy-handed restrictions on immigrants in Alabama have a variety of problems, but one of them is that the Alabama economy still relies to a large extent on cheap labor. They aren't the only ones- agriculture and aquaculture operations all over the US, including crab pickers on the Eastern Shore of our home state- will take advantage of the availability of Latin American workers who are able to come north to work for low wages as "guest workers" doing jobs the natives don't want.

I confess that I stopped reading the article when they started talking to a sociologist about the stigma associated with doing dirty job, and how once a job goes to immigrants it doesn't go back. No doubt I'm blinded by my training as an economist, but the issue here isn't that the job is "dirty," whether by association with dirt itself or by a despised group of people. The issue is that the jobs don't pay enough for people to put up with the physical punishment associated with doing the job. Americans do some nasty, nasty jobs, and they do them because they pay. The aquaculturist in the article complains that he "can't pay people $13 an hour" because of overseas competition.

I hate to be cold-hearted, but if you can't stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen. Find a niche, dude- try raising your catfish on organic meal and then charge a premium price when you sell them. Then maybe you could afford to pay your workers a decent wage, and you wouldn't have to go try to convince people to come work for you out of the goodness of their hearts. (The employer hasn't bothered to learn the language of his workers, but that's another story.) Try switching to shrimp, which is also a product with heavy international competition, but one that still goes for a good price.

I can't say I like the means by which this end was achieved: the racially-tinged regulations make me sick to my stomach. But if it brings an end to the economy of serfdom, that would be a lotus flower: a beautiful thing rooted in muck.

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