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Outsourcing: the New (Old) Amish Workforce

Posted by: Stacy Perman on August 19, 2008

amish3.jpg 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.

amish2.jpgBut 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?”

amisha.jpgFor 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

Reader Comments


August 21, 2008 10:50 AM

I think the only thing "Amish" about most of those workers is their ancestry. Notice how they don't hestitate to use the modern conveniences. Already, they obey the letter of the law, but not the spirit of the law. Several states are already having trouble with Amish puppy mills mistreating animals for profits. A lot of "Amish" restaurants use instant potatoes and gravy mixes. IMO it's all for show and real Amish don't work for outsiders.


August 22, 2008 09:16 AM

I do know where you live but you could not be more dead wrong about these people I have lived among them for over 40 yrs in NE Ohio and Pa .
They are a very focus Breed of people
and yes {inter breed } marring their first cousins there are slackers just like every race and and culture but at least 98% of them are very hard workers
and very devoted to their familys and church in the 40 + yrs i've never seen any puppy mills or mistreatment to the livestock see the Amish belive that the livestock must work for their wages too
in the form of plowing harvisting they are a very important roll to the Amish .
There is some spoof's to the rule but it is such a slight margin it is minute


August 24, 2008 08:36 AM

With the Amish I know one doesn't need a "contract." Their word is the "bond". I wish the rest of this country (and world) was such. Great hard working people and I salute their lifestyle.


September 2, 2008 04:07 AM

I think outsourcing is just every where and not only in one country or region


September 2, 2008 01:39 PM

I think the Amish have always worked for the other people near their communities in ways that are acceptable to them - I remember going to buy Amish-produced baked goods and vegetables with my Grandma when I was a kid, and the men who dug my Grandfather's grave were Amish. They are very insular as far as their social, familial, and religious lives go, but they've never refused to interact with their neighbors.

Maybe some of these folks are working more like Mennonites - who are very similar culturally but less rejecting of modern machinery - but that doesn't mean that they're somehow shocking or un-Amish.

Incidentally, I had heard about the puppy mill thing - I think some Amish are thinking about those puppies as livestock, and are treating them basically like most large-scale farmers treat chickens. Most Amish are nothing like that, like most people are nothing like that, but they have their rotten sociopathic types just like the general population does.

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