A Harvest Automation nursery robot lasts at least five years, works tirelessly in hot, humid greenhouse environments, and costs a onetime sum of $30,000. Guess whose jobs the Harvest bots are going to take? Migrant workers', naturally, who've long staffed the nation's nurseries.
Just watch how adroitly the bots do the job that migrant and low-paid workers have done for decades:
Fast Company recently spoke with Harvest’s CEO about the economic allure of the greenhouse robots. He believes, naturally, that automation in nurseries is unstoppable.
John Kawola says the automation of the nursery is inevitable, because robots are cheaper, and operators can no longer find humans for the work. "Ten years ago, it was pretty easy to secure that labor. But things like 9/11 have made migration across borders more difficult, and in the last few years, depending on the state, there has been increasing scrutiny in employing illegal workers. It’s a huge business risk for these companies, and so they are looking for a technology solution that alleviates that.”
This trend is a hugely important one to watch: It makes clear that even the nation’s worst-paying jobs are being given over to robots. And in states that have passed onerous anti-immigration laws, like Arizona, Alabama, and South Carolina, it means robots may be on the verge of permanently supplanting migrant workers. Those laws have often led to an exodus of immigrants, leaving the states with a vast shortage of manual labor—and a huge incentive for employers to invest in robots that can do similar work for comparable costs.
Remember, one of the chief ways that the politicians support such laws is by claiming that migrant workers are “taking American jobs.” Of course, in places like Alabama and South Carolina, where extreme laws used the threat of deportation to flush out immigrants doing difficult agricultural work, very few Americans have shown up to take their place. Many simply refuse to do the work, even if the alternative is being unemployed.
Unless the laws are amended, it seems increasingly likely that many of these jobs will eventually be filled by machines like the Harvest Automation bot. States like Alabama aren’t pushing out migrants to free up jobs for Americans, then: they might be freeing them up for robots.
A nursery in Georgia, another state with new, tough anti-immigrant labor laws, was the first to buy a shipment of Harvest bots. Flowerwood Nursery, Inc, based in Alabama, has been working with Harvest to beta test the robots. Harvest has $13 million in investment capital, and have shipped the first wave of their robots across the country.
Meanwhile, efforts to fill the farm jobs vacated by migrants with American workers have been stunningly unsuccessful. According to Wired, the United Farm Workers “Take Our Jobs” campaign “placed only seven workers in farm jobs in its first three months last year.”
So the big picture may come to look something like this: Grandstanding politicians and other xenophobes say migrant workers are taking American jobs, so they kick them out. But it turns out that Americans don’t want those jobs. So employers buy robot workers instead.
Of course, that’s a gross oversimplification, and the trend is merely a nascent one. Robots can’t do all of the back-breaking labor that immigrants do yet; not even close. But companies like Harvest are proving that automation is an ever more feasible alternative for basic unskilled labor, and are helping to demonstrate that there’s an economic alternative to hiring migrant workers even if Americans won’t step up. Clearly, companies in states that have just lost access to cheap labor will be eager to fill the gap with robots, especially if they’re affordable. And Harvest is in a very early stage—once they’re mass manufacturing the nursery bots, prices will drop even further, and they’ll be even more easily accessible.
The rise of agricultural automatons isn’t necessarily an ominous development all-around; hell, we’re going to need robots when climate change makes it too hot for humans to work outside without getting hypothermia. And ideally, as goes the dream of the techno-utopianist, robots like this can do the crappy, back-breaking work and free up humans to take on more meaningful pursuits.
But we’re not adequately prepared for a robotized society. We need to recognize that in the near-future, full employment won’t be possible in the traditional sense, and that our social safety net as it’s currently engineered won’t be able to handle the growing number of jobless. We also must prepare to address the stigma that might attach itself to migrant and low paid workers—who are already woefully stigmatized as it is—when the menial labor they currently do to allow our society to function can be done by robots. And we've got to realize that before long, when loudmouthed politicians blather on about immigrants stealing your job, he's really just aiming to give it to a robot.