Do Mexicans Work Less Hard in Mexico, or Don’t They?

A reader named LLP sent an e-mail early yesterday morning with an interesting question:

I was reading this article regarding California farmers moving their operations to Mexico. The following quote struck me, and I’m trying to find an explanation for the difference in productivity:

“Scaroni expects [to] recover his start-up costs because of the lower wages he pays farm workers here, $11 a day as opposed to about $9 an hour in California, although Mexican workers are less productive in their own country, he said.”

LLP wanted to know why there would be such a difference in productivity between Mexicans working in Mexico and Mexicans working in California (assuming, of course, that the farmer named Scaroni was making an accurate observation).

Shortly after receiving LLP’s e-mail, I saw the article he was referring to in the New York Times, by Julia Preston, and I began to read it. Strangely enough, I couldn’t find the line about Mexican productivity. Instead, here’s what I read:

“I have a customer base that demands we produce and deliver product every day,” [Scaroni] said. “They don’t want to hear the excuses.” He acknowledges that wages are much lower in Mexico; he pays $11 a day here as opposed to about $9 an hour in California. But without legal workers in California, he said, “I have no choice but to offshore my operation.”

Hmm. Had LLP misquoted the article? That didn’t seem likely, since it looked like he had simply cut and pasted. Was he engaging in a little low-grade subterfuge, putting a fake quote in a real article to try to stir up some kind of trouble? That didn’t seem likely either; we’ve heard from LLP quite a few times, and he’d always been a straight shooter.

So I followed the link that LLP had sent with his e-mail. It was the same article, by Julia Preston, but from the Times-owned International Herald Tribune, which typically runs a lot of Times copy in its pages. And there, as LLP had written, was the interesting passage in question:

Transferring to Mexico has been costly, [Scaroni] said. Since the greens he cuts here go to bagged salads in supermarkets, he rigidly follows the same food safety practices as California. Scaroni expects [to] recover his start-up costs because of the lower wages he pays farm workers here, $11 a day as opposed to about $9 an hour in California, although Mexican workers are less productive in their own country, he said.

For whatever reason, Scaroni’s observation about Mexican productivity made it into the IHT but not the Times. So if you read the article in the Times, you missed out on what LLP — and, FWIW, I — thought was perhaps the most interesting point in a thoroughly interesting article.

As for LLP’s original question: why such a differential in Mexicans’ productivity in Mexico versus California? He asked if perhaps it’s because there is less pressure to earn in Mexico. That seems sensible. Not only is the cost of living much more expensive in California, but there are additional incentives for a Mexican worker there — to save money to bring additional family members to the U.S., for example.

But also, that is a pretty huge wage that Scaroni describes: $11 per day in Mexico versus $9 per hour in the U.S. The experimental economist John List at the University of Chicago has done research showing that people who get paid more indeed work harder. But in this case, I am guessing we’re looking at a huge selection issue: the workers who are willing to go to the U.S. for that higher wage are a lot more motivated than the ones who don’t. So it makes sense that they are the harder workers. And the workers who stay behind in Mexico are the ones who … well, they’re the ones who stay behind.


Self selection is probably the most important factor (more ambitious, healthy, & motivated workers migrate to the U.S.) but there may be other factors - more irrigation, pesticides, and weeding in the U.S. to maximize yield in a more expensive environment; and more capital equipment (for the same reason).




I read the original article in the NYTimes and I distinctly recall reading that line "Mexican workers are less productive in their own country." I think it was a late editorial deletion.


I read that article on the NY Times website the other day, and it absolutely had the quote about Mexicans working harder here than at home. Maybe it was later edited out of political correctness?


If you move from your native state (let's say RI) to go work in a new state far away (let's day CA) leaving your family and friends behind, work will likely become your main focus and a more integral part of your self image.

Your identity will be more tied to what your colleges think about you than if you have outside friends and you won't be as consumed by family live and problems (whether your son has a bad flu or your sister has marital problems).

I guess it's also true for migrant workers.


If I were traveling to another country away from family and friends in order to earn money, I would work by rear end off quickly so that I could return quickly.

If I were living in a sub-tropical climate where the cost of living was low, surrounded by all my family and friends, I would be hard pressed to engage in anything that resembles work.


It might not be just a 'Mexican' thing- I would venture that immigrant groups in general (in any country) work harder than the *median* worker in their home country.


I do not think that the "skills" of the Mexican worker have much to do with the differential. The productivity differential is related to the land ownership laws in Mexico. The Mexican Constitution (article 27) does not allow for large extensions of land in the private sector. Most of the agricultural fiels are communal (ejidos).


Before we go searching for reasons for the phenomenon, are we sure it exists?

Mexicans in the States are stereotyped as willing to do anything for a dime, and Mexicans in Mexico are stereotyped as lazy. It seems that there's a good chance that the statement may be equally explained by a bias than an underlying productivity difference.


I hear that Montreal restaurants are hiring U.S. undocumented illegals for about $200/hr. Yes, there are no benefits (except universal health care, no questions asked) and no, I can't speak my grandmother's French, but maybe it's worth a shot anyway. I would be able to work 80 hrs/wk for cash.

Let's see: $200 x 80hrs x 50weeks = $800,000.

Quod Erat Demonstrandum.


Dubner earns street cred for pointing out a questionable editorial decision by his host company...

Bill Harshaw

I read it in the NYTimes locally delivered in Reston, VA and I find it in the Times article I linked to from my blog yesterday.

I have much the same take as amunicio--fewer distractions, fewer constricting networks and expectations, more risk. The Peter J. Wilson book, Crab Antics, is also interesting on the forces within a culture that hold back and punish deviance, even deviance in earning money.


sell-fulfilling prophecy- pay me 7 times as much, and I'll stop goofing off on this computer and get back to work


I think George Borjas has devoted a lot of time to this topic. And, if I recall, you're spot on. It's selection bias, motivated individuals are the ones who take the migration plunge to enhance their human capital the laggards stay home.


Hmm, interesting discrepancy...can we get the Public Editor on the case?


Before you go talking about selection of harder workers, why not deal with honest-to-God factors that directly affect production. First, what if US employers demand more production? The workers are there, have come a long way and thus have invested in coming, need the money and are paid a premium to adhere to higher production standards. Second, if you are in Mexico and aren't paying a real premium over other local employers, how do you enforce higher productivity when your workforce may vote with its feet? What are the expectations of the workforce for the given pay? The profiled company is paying about $1/hr. If they raised that rate to $3/hr they might be able to enforce higher production standards.

Third, what about other production factors? In the US, the farms have ready access to all kinds of machinery. Now if we assume they really do adhere to the same safe handling standards in Mexico, that doesn't mean they don't do much, much more manually or that they are as efficient in using machinery. For example, what if a US farm uses more trucks to carry produce so it doesn't have to be carried? Not a safe handling issue but a real impact on productivity.

I found the jump to "selection" pressures to be more than vaguely racist. Refer to the prior blog posting about the greater sensitivity of Latinos to slurs.



Got it in one:

"the workers who are willing to go to the U.S. for that higher wage are a lot more motivated than the ones who don't"

A hint: state the obvious a lot earlier in your article - anyone with any knowledge of real-world economics might've stopped reading halfway through, with such a jarring omission shouting out between the lines.

Beyond that, any research about pay differentials and motivation must be treated with caution here: John List can't possibly have covered a range that wide - not just differing-but-comparable amounts, but an order of magnitude: and different conditions, different attitudes and expectations, a whole different life.

But no, I wouldn't work particularly hard for eleven dollars per day, either. Nor for being hit in the face by the boss, no healthcare, no holidays, and a long walk home to a tin shack with no electricity and running water.


This is a ridiculuos proposition. Productivity has more to do with technology than motivation. Do you really think that Mexican workers are ten times more motivated in California? Their not even ten times more productive... but that´s the pay difference. I guess supply and demand has something to do with that.


Is no one asking the Times as to the reason for the discrepancy in the articles? The official reason, I mean.


I think it's cultural. Nothing happens quickly in central and south America; there is a different relationship to time and a slower pace. Siesta may figure into it, too.

I wonder if pay by hour vs. pay by day makes any difference. If you just get paid a set fee no matter what level of effort you put in, why would you try to excel? If you get paid by the hour and can show you are productive, you may be rewarded with more hours and more pay.