THE FENCE POST

February 6, 2017

 

Dairy official: Most milk involves foreign workers

 

ORLANDO, Fla. — About 70 percent of the milk sold in the U.S. comes from farms that employ foreign workers, a key dairy industry official said in Orlando last week.

That situation, which has occurred as dairy farms have gotten bigger, shows “we need comprehensive immigration reform,” Jaime Castaneda, the senior vice president for strategic initiatives and trade policy at the National Milk Producers Federation said. He spoke during a panel discussion on immigration and the workforce at the International Dairy Foods Association’s Dairy Forum.

The discussion took place in the midst of concerns that President Donald Trump’s campaign promises to crack down on illegal immigration will lead to raids on dairy farms and other facilities that employ foreigners.

National Milk, the nation’s largest association of dairy farmers, will oppose stricter enforcement of immigration laws without similar action for workers to be able to achieve legal status, Castaneda said.

Because dairy workers are needed year-round, the H2A visa program through which fruit and vegetable workers come into the country for short periods will not work for dairy, he added.

Castaneda noted there is a program for shepherds to come into the U.S. for a period of three years, and he said a bill had been introduced to treat dairy workers in a similar fashion but it did not get serious consideration.

Bruce Goldstein, president of Farmworker Justice, and Castaneda agreed on the need for comprehensive reform, and both said the H2A program cannot be used to supply dairy workers.

But Goldstein said his organization would oppose a bill that allows dairy workers to come into the U.S. for multiple years with no opportunity to become permanent legal residents.

“If they are going to work year-round they should have the opportunity to become immigrants,” Goldstein said. “A three-year visa to visit home once a year is anti-family.”

Laws that allow different treatment for farm labor go back to the 1930s when the employers of black farm workers did not want them covered by the labor laws of the time, Goldstein said.

Farm workers, he added, “are not inputs, they are people, and should have the opportunity to become citizens.”

Goldstein continued, “Farm work has changed — we are asking farm workers to exercise judgment. Agriculture should be considered like other sectors of the economy when it comes to labor.”

Farmworker Justice is concerned about the high rate of fatalities and injuries on dairy farms, Goldstein said. There have been cases of workers drowned in manure pits, dragged by augers into silos and also not getting paid for all the hours they have worked, he explained.

There is little data on foreign dairy workers compared with fruit and vegetable workers, said Philip Martin, a professor emeritus at the University of California Davis and an expert on farmworker immigration.

Dairy is the fifth biggest employer of foreign farm workers, Martin said. The biggest user of foreign workers is the fruit sector, followed by crop support firms, horticultural specialties, vegetables and melons and finally dairy.

About 50 percent of farm workers are believed to be undocumented, but the percentage in dairy may be lower because the jobs are year-round, Martin said.

The biggest problem for the industry is that as older foreign workers leave farms, fewer young foreigners are coming to take their place. Fewer young Mexicans are traveling to the U.S. to seek work because rural Mexicans are getting better educations, car plants have been built and women are having fewer children, Martin said.

Employers try to satisfy the remaining workers with bonuses, but they are also turning the lower-level workers into supervisors and buying technology such as robotic milking machines to do the work, Martin said.

While Trump has talked about the importance of building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, the number of foreign farm workers has fallen, Martin said, and they are aging. The average age of crop workers is 38 years, of all laborers 42. As recently as 20 years ago, it was 24 and in the 1990s it was 28, he said.

Castaneda said the milk producers want to work with the Trump administration on its immigration policy, but that the situation ultimately comes back to the need for comprehensive immigration reform.