Thursday, April 18, 2024

As its workers stream to the U.S., Mexico runs short of farmhands

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But the country is running short of farmworkers.

The workforce is graying; nearly three-quarters of Mexican campesinos are over 45. Young people are turning up their noses at farm jobs. And those willing to do migrant work have other options. Nearly 300,000 a year travel to the United States on seasonal agricultural visas, a fourfold increase in a decade.

“They’re taking a significant percentage of the available workers,” fretted Aldo Mares, a farm executive here in Jalisco state. He’s had to scramble this season to find workers to pick his juicy strawberries, blackberries and raspberries.

The worker shortage reflects a paradox often overlooked in the supercharged U.S. immigration debate. Even as American politicians outdo each other in proposals to fortify the border with Mexico, economic forces are pulling the two sides closer. The U.S. appetite for made-in-Mexico goods, from avocados to automobiles to airplane parts, is growing so fast that it’s straining the workforce that produces them.

That’s particularly clear in agriculture. The companies that put berries on Americans’ tables, such as Driscoll’s and Naturipe Farms, work with growers on both sides of the border, taking advantage of different harvest seasons. But in Mexico, the farms are competing with manufacturers for workers. In a land once known for cheap, abundant labor, business groups say job vacancies could top 1 million.

In a once-unthinkable move, Mexican farmers are now calling for a major guest-worker program of their own. The government is taking the first step, planning to soon open a database of 14,000 jobs in agriculture and other sectors to non-Mexicans.

While wages here remain well below U.S. levels, employers hope some migrants might be willing to swap the American Dream for a Mexican one.

“We’re talking about Mexico having 1.5 million unfilled job openings,” said Giovanni Lepri, the Mexico representative for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. “People in search of a better life could fill at least part of that.”

Now Mexico’s an agricultural superpower, too

A shortage of Mexican farmworkers might seem startling - like Italy running out of pizza chefs, or Colombia lacking coffee producers.

Mexico was long a nation of peasant farmers, who cultivated corn, beans, chiles and other crops. When U.S. employers struggled with labor shortages during World War II, they turned to Mexico. Millions of farmworkers went north on temporary visas between 1942 and 1964 under the bracero program, putting an indelible mark on U.S. agriculture. Even today, two-thirds of employees on American farms are Mexican-born.

But thanks to free-trade treaties, Mexico has become a major agricultural power of its own. Its exports to the United States - its top customer - doubled over the past decade to reach $45 billion in 2023.

Mares, 49, is typical of the new era of ag CEOs. He’s a city boy from Guadalajara who studied business administration. In the 1990s, as the North American Free Trade Agreement kicked in, a professor told his class that 40 percent of them would wind up in agriculture.

“We said, ‘He’s crazy,’” Mares said. “And here I am.”

The countryside of Jalisco, once planted with corn and sugar cane, is now a shimmering white sea of plastic tunnels, filled with genetically supercharged berry bushes - many shipped south by U.S. companies.

Finding workers to pick all that fruit is increasingly difficult.

In the poorer south, which is the traditional source of Mexico’s migrant laborers, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has launched big infrastructure projects, leading to a boom in construction jobs.

In the industrialized north, the brisk cross-border trade has created more factory work. Mexico surged past China last year to become the No. 1 source of imports to the United States.

“The strong U.S. economy drives the Mexican labor market,” said Raymond Robertson, director of the Mosbacher Institute for Trade, Economics and Public Policy at Texas A&M University.

That integration is especially evident in agriculture. The number of H2-A temporary visas issued by the U.S. government to farmworkers has skyrocketed from around 74,000 in 2013 to 311,000 last year. The vast majority go to Mexicans. Another 26,000 Mexicans go to Canada on similar visas. American farmers say they need the Mexican workers, even at a time of record migration, since many of those crossing the U.S. border are city dwellers from places like Venezuela, Cuba and Ecuador.

In Jalisco, farmers say the exodus has compounded a labor shortage caused by the country’s declining birthrate and competition from other industries. They’re 10 to 15 percent below the number of crop pickers they need for the spring harvest.

“Mexico has to think seriously about what to do about workers,” said Juan Cortina, president of the National Agricultural Council, which represents farm producers. “We need temporary work visas for our neighbors to the south.”

Better salaries, benefits for migrant farmworkers

Mares agrees a long-term labor solution is needed. But he has to worry about this season, these berries. Ninety percent of the fruit from his Green Gold Farms go to the United States, whose berry harvest won’t peak for months.

His company and others have teams of recruiters scouring the countryside, contacting potential workers via bullhorn, fliers and, increasingly, Facebook.

It can be a tough sell. The jobs they offer - six days a week of plucking berries - are exhausting. Harvesters, paid by the bucket, are in continuous motion. And the industry has a history of abuses, including dilapidated housing and unfair pay practices.

These days, employers have to offer better conditions to attract workers. They’ve hiked harvesters’ salaries in the last few years by up to 100 percent. While wages still pale by U.S. standards, they’ve been enough to slash extreme poverty in many rural areas - “an extremely important development,” said Agustín Escobar, a Mexican agricultural researcher.

Miguel Ángel de Jesús, 19, said he earns twice as much picking berries in Jalisco as he could back home in the hardscrabble mountains of Puebla state. His after-tax salary at Agrovision, a U.S.-based company that sells under the Fruitist brand, is around 400 pesos a day, roughly $24, and his food and dormitory are covered.

“We don’t complain,” he said, as his hands flew over a blueberry bush, the plump spheres cascading into plastic buckets strapped to his waist. “We come from places where they don’t give us all this.”

On billboards and banners around rural Jalisco, berry companies offer potential hires savings plans, social security, signing bonuses and a new incentive: temporary visas to work at partner firms in the United States during their harvest seasons, at much higher salaries.

Mexico has long recruited Guatemalan guest workers to help pick coffee beans in southern Chiapas state. But now authorities are crafting a broader program aimed at the historic flows of migrants headed to the U.S. border. About 2.5 million migrants entered Mexico last year; more than 140,000 sought asylum.

The new program would allow migrants and people living abroad to apply for visas to fill jobs in Mexico. The 14,000 jobs in the first cohort is small, but the program is set up to grow, officials say.

Persuading foreigners to work in Mexican agriculture may not be easy, however. Cerritos, a berry and avocado company, hired around 30 Central Americans through a pilot project. Half soon quit; they’d been factory workers and didn’t take to farming, said Pablo Lázaro, a company official. The rest left after three months. “They said, ‘We found people to help us cross,’” he recalled, and they left for the United States.

In the short term, Mexico’s guest-worker programs might not make much of a dent in the northbound migration flow, said Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute in Washington. But given pressure on U.S. politicians to crack down on undocumented immigration, that could change.

“If it becomes harder to cross the border at some point,” Selee said, “Mexico could become an increasingly attractive place to go.”

- Lorena Rios contributed to this report.

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