Immigration is a hot topic. Everyone seems to have an opinion about it.
A common theme has to do with employment and unemployment. Immigrants, especially undocumented or "illegal" immigrants, are said to be "taking jobs away from U. S. citizens."
That is likely a true statement.
The reason why it is true is more complex.
A recent report by Seven Greenhouse ("Among Janitors, Labor Violations Go With the Job," The New York Times, July 13, 2005, pages A1, A19) reveals how companies take unfair advantage of non-union janitors by contracting for custodial services.
Examples of unlawful labor practices include the hiring of minors, requiring employees to work more than 40 hours per week without overtime pay, assigning individual employees more than one name to cover up the extended hour practice, locking cleaning staff inside buildings overnight, forcing employees to work their first two weeks without pay and compensating janitors at less than the minimum hourly wage (ridiculously low at $5.15).
Janitorial services companies, attempting to come in as low bidders in competition to land cleaning contracts with large corporations, squeeze these non-union, immigrant workers to achieve their goals. Undocumented workers are easily exploited and intimidated. As a result, they put up with labor practices that citizens would not tolerate.
So, I guess they do fill jobs that U. S. citizens don't and won't.
If American companies behaved fairly in regard to this sector of the labor market, our citizens would fill these jobs. The decision to seek out labor that will work at far below livable and even legal wages opens the doors and, thus, the borders for undocumented workers.
Already during 2005, a number of large corporations have entered into multi-million dollar settlements after complaints were brought against their labor practices. Last March, Wal-Mart Stores settled with the U. S. Department of Justice for $11 million after raids on stores in 21 states. Wal-Mart uses janitorial contractors for cleaning services. These contractors employed undocumented workers to keep costs down and to secure the contracts.
Wal-Mart is not alone. Settlements have been reached with Target, Safeway, Albertson's and Ralphs. Testimony in these cases revealed that some janitors servicing these contracts worked seven nights a week for $3.50 an hour. Some reported working 364 days out of the year, with Christmas as their only day off. Others reported being threatened with firing if they took sick days.
Now let's see. Where's the problem here?
Is it that these are jobs no one else will do? I suppose so given the wages and the conditions.
Is this the fault of the immigrants? Or, is the real problem with the corporations who attempt to maximize their profits by choosing the lowest bidders without regard to social policy or basic humane considerations?
Is the problem with hard-working immigrants who take the jobs they can find? Or, is the real issue unscrupulous janitorial contractors who exploit vulnerable individuals to keep from paying citizens a legal wage with overtime and benefits?
Should our national frustration be directed at the worker who comes from south of our border? Or, would it be better to take aim at the part of corporate America that resists unions and seeks to keep wages as low as possible?
What about our own greed? What about my political will and power? Aren't we all implicated in many ways?
Seems to me we need to completely rethink the issue of immigration. And, while we are at it, we need to pay more attention to the harsh realities facing much of our labor force in this country.
The vigilantes who recently have been heralded for patrolling the Mexican border to intercept immigrants might better spend their time camped out at the Capitol in Washington or in the boardrooms of the nation's major corporations.
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