Guest Services

One of the many contentious subjects in one of the most contentious areas of public policy is the place of “guest workers” in our immigration system.

American businesspeople, including farm owners, have been pressing for a “guest worker” program that would allow Mexicans and other foreign citizens to come to the United States temporarily, even seasonally, to take on certain tasks. (The bulk of farm work is currently performed by undocumented immigrants.)

Sunday’s Los Angeles Times, however, devoted some space to opponents of this idea. Immigration skeptic Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, told the paper that if farmers weren’t given the opportunity to import cheap labor, they might well be forced to create better jobs—with higher pay and decent benefits—that would attract Americans to the fields.

Farm work is lousy because farmers keep getting new ways of importing farmworkers,” Krikorian asserted. “So why would the industry have any incentive to change?”

As Peter Drucker surveyed the world in the 1980s and ’90s, he saw the era of mass migrations to industrialized countries coming to an end—for the most part. Western Europe had seen a massive influx of guest workers in the decades following World War II, but that wave was dying down. Where he saw an exception was in the United States.

America can expect large-scale migration from Mexico, a very poor country with one of the largest labor surpluses and one of the highest unemployment rates, yet located next to the richest country,” Drucker predicted in Managing in Turbulent Times. Whether those coming from Mexico “are officially ‘legal,’ ‘illegal,’ or ‘quasi-legal’ is immaterial,” Drucker added. The trend was inevitable.

As for the advantages of guest workers, or simply low-wage workers, Drucker saw both pros and cons. On the one hand, he believed Mexican migration northward would “endow American manufacturing with competitive strength such as it has not known for a long time.” (It is hard to argue, of course, that this ever came to pass, at least in most industries.)

Immigrant farm workers, 1909. Image source: Wikimedia Commons
Immigrant farm workers, 1909. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

On the other hand, Drucker sounded an almost contradictory note in Management Challenges for the 21st Century. “It is no longer possible to base a business or a country’s economic development on cheap labor,” he warned. “However low its wages, a business . . . is unlikely to survive, let alone to prosper, unless its workforce rapidly attains the productivity of the leaders of the industry anyplace in the world.”

What is the proper place, if any, for low-cost guest workers in a modern economy?