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Outsourcing: the New (Old) Amish Workforce

The WSJ published a story Friday about consumers hiring Amish contractors and subcontractors to build homes for folks who are not part of the strict conservative Christian sect. The lure being the Amish community’s tradition of craftsmanship and their renowned work ethic. Of course there is another bonus in employing a community that has long shunned modern living. Because of their restrictive set of beliefs, most Amish builders use family members and don’t pay unemployment benefits, worker’s compensation or insurance. That means that overhead costs are staggeringly low, an irresistible factor that clients uniformly found resulted in their houses being built not only faster but much cheaper than if they had hired non-Amish contractors. It was a fact that seemed to outweigh the downsides of using a workforce that is forbidden to own a phone, computer, or drive and who will most likely not have insurance or sign a comprehensive contract.

But for every set of restrictions whether imposed by the law or a higher authority there is a loophole. While Amish aren’t allowed to own power tools, they can use somebody elses; although they themselves are forbidden to drive, they can be driven, ditto when it comes to the use of somebody else’s telephone.

About a month ago, I was pitched a story by a Midwest-based company that touted its Amish bona fides in its line of organic foods. It turned out however, that the only thing Amish about the company was the majority of its employees. I was told the CEO would be able talk about how he set up his business using “a highly-dedicated and skilled Amish work force,” while still being able to “utilize industrial equipment and modern conveniences.” While I declined to pursue the story, I was reminded of the line delivered by Harrison Ford in the movie Witness, when as the cynical cop John Book, he goes undercover deep in Amish Country after a murder: “How do I look?,” he says to a demure Kelly McGillis who plays the Amish widow Rachel Lapp. “I mean do I look Amish?”

For years now, the Amish have moved away from strictly farming and diversified into various other ventures. Could this be the start of a new trend in small business: the Amish workforce? In this time of rising costs due to fuel spikes and the loss of manufacturing jobs as a result of outsourcing, tapping into this hardworking domestic set of ready-made workers appears attractive to a degree. However, it also raises a troubling specter. For one there are few if any checks or balances in what is likely to be an inequitable employer/employee relationship. Who will enforce agreements between parties? Who will mitigate any problems? Who will pay if someone gets injured on the job? What recourse does one party have over a dispute with the other? Hmmm… this “trend” seems to raise as many questions, as, well, a traditional Amish barn.

photo credit: Getty Images

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