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Chiquita Boss Goes ‘Undercover‘: Says Ag Industry ‘Would Go Into Chaos’ Without Foreign-Born Workers

Fernando Aguirre grew up “on the lower side of middle class” in Mexico City, and when he first traveled to America on a study trip — funded with money he made selling Datsuns at his uncle’s car dealership — the only things he knew how to say in English were “cheeseburger” and “Coke.” Today, he boasts a successful business career spanning 23 years with Procter & Gamble and nearly nine as CEO of Chiquita Brands International. He is currently the owner and CEO of the Erie SeaWolves, a minor league baseball team in Pennsylvania, and a co-owner of both the Myrtle Beach Pelicans, a minor league team in South Carolina, and the MLB’s Cincinnati Reds

As an immigrant, Aguirre says he already had a lot of respect for anyone who comes to America in search of a better life. But that appreciation grew after he appeared on the CBS reality show “Undercover Boss,” in which he posed as a newly hired immigrant then worked alongside his employees picking lettuce in the fields and steering a forklift in Chiquita warehouses. “It really opened my eyes to how hard those jobs are. I failed miserably at most of the things I did,” he says. Waking up in the small hours of the morning to pick lettuce also gave him insight into why so many agricultural operations depend on foreign-born workers. “These are jobs nobody wants — that’s why there are so many immigrants working in the fields,” he says. “Most people don’t want to get up at 3 or 4 in the morning and be bending over time and time again to pick lettuce.”

Chiquita always took employee verification seriously, and, unlike some of its rivals, never ran into trouble with immigration authorities on Aguirre’s watch. Still, many of the company’s suppliers struggled to find enough legal workers to bring in their harvests. It’s clear that reforms are needed, Aguirre says, to both help companies find labor and to provide immigrants with a way to work legally where they’re most needed. “I’m a believer that there’ve got to be programs that provide a legal path for people to come and work in the U.S.,” Aguirre says.

“We should develop special permits for companies that want to bring in groups of people to work on their farms, pay them well, then send them back,” he says. It’s an approach that works well for many baseball teams, which bring players in from Latin America for the season then send them home in the off-season, and it’s one that could work for farmers and other industries too, Aguirre says.

The bottom line, Aguirre says, is that many sectors of the American economy have grown dependent upon immigrant labor, and shutting out immigrants — whether documented or undocumented — would spell disaster. “Whenever anyone talks about closing the border, my reaction is always, Sure, but you’ll also close down companies that can’t hire labor in the United States for those jobs — farms, restaurants, hotels.”

You only have to look to the exorbitant prices that Japanese consumers pay for imported fresh produce to get a sense of the sticker shock that American consumers would face if the supply of foreign labor dried up. “If anyone were to build a border wall, the service industry and the agricultural produce industry would go into chaos, and that would impact consumers,” Aguirre says. “We’d have to pay much more because they’d have to pay people two, three, four times as much to do the work, and they still wouldn’t be able to find enough people to do the jobs and fill the spaces left by the Hispanics who’d been here.”

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