Friday, August 10, 2007

Dirty Work

Illegal immigrants are criminals. End of story. The entire problem can be simplified to one issue: documentation.

If you believe that then the only thing that's simple in this discussion is your mind. It doesn't matter if Lou Dobbs has your back, failing to delve deeper into the subject is socially, ethically and morally irresponsible.

Illegal immigrants aren't stealing jobs. They are filling jobs that American citizens find disagreeable. If employers would improve working conditions, increase pay and offer benefits sufficient to support a modest existence people would fill these jobs. Of course that would require the American consumer to shell out more for goods and services that are provided thanks in part to cheap labor.

Much of that cheap labor comes from illegal immigrants but there are programs that allow employers to import workers from other countries. Illegal immigration is a convenient scapegoat but even if it's eliminated, we still have cheap foreign labor coming in. The primary provider of this labor is Mexico and the program is called H2B It essentially converts Mexico into a temporary labor provider. You can find H2B workers throughout the country performing work in seasonal operations such as landscaping, sanitation and roofing.

The H2B program sets a minimum wage (adverse effect wage rate) that the employers must adhere to and the available jobs must be publicly posted. The classified ads of your local newspaper are replete with H2B ads months before the effective recruiting season begins. This is clever because people seldom look for landscaping jobs in January so the recruiting effort is designed to fail. You can pick out an H2B ad by looking for jargon-laden spots that post an odd hourly wage. In Columbus the recent ads featured an hourly wage of $8.62 an hour. Several larger landscaping companies posted the same ad with the same hourly rate and they currently have Mexican work crews. Once the ad has run for a predetermined period of time the employer can request assistance from the H2B program to fill remaining openings.

The employers arrange for seasonal housing to accommodate this foreign workforce. The housing arrangements often violate local housing ordinances by crowding too many people into a single family home. In Columbus, Ohio one local lawn care company got into a little hot water when it was revealed that 12 men were living in a three bedroom home. The reason for this is that people making $8.62 an hour can't afford to rent an apartment or a home of their own. The H2B program exploits foreign workers, shipping them to the U.S. like some sort of economic militia.

Of course Lou Dobbs doesn't talk about this. He's worried about those illegal immigrants, many of whom secure documentation that looks legitimate enough to qualify for full time permanent jobs that pay a more realistic wage. The legal H2B program allows employers to keep wages below market value driving away natural born or naturalized candidates. The waiting list for the H2B program is long and it doesn't provide an actionable plan for gaining permanent residency status. This program actually makes illegal immigration more attractive thus exacerbating the problem.

But people don't want to pay $100 a pop to have their grass cut in order to bridge the wage gap. We like to blame the American worker for being too demanding and lazy but that's not it at all. The problem is $8.62 an hour. And that isn't even a real wage. The H2B workers are often 1099 employees which means they are subcontractors who must deduct their own taxes, cover their own workers' compensation and most importantly they are not entitled to overtime wages. Those H2B laborers will work 16 hours a day seven days a week until the assignment ends.

Employers who use the H2B program claim to see an increase in productivity, experience fewer complaints from the workers and of course they see a decrease in attendance problems. That's because they replace an empowered American workers with a captive labor pool. It's not quite slavery because these people volunteer and recieve compensation but it's not as if an H2B employee can quit for a better job.

The problem with the American worker is the fact that they have freedom of choice. If you don't want to work on Saturday you can quit and find another job, if an H2B employee doesn't want to work on Saturday INS will be there first thing Monday morning to escort him back to Mexico. The incentive for H2B workers is built in. Who needs whips when deportation is just a phone call away? H2B employees get no due process, they either do as they're told or they are rejected from the program. It's not fair.

The scam goes even deeper. The employer arranges for room and board and often deduct those expenses from the H2B payroll. In fact, many H2B employers purchase low cost housing and can write it off as an business expense while receiving remuneration for putting the employees up in those houses.. The employer also arranges for transportation and can deduct for that as well. If an H2B employee gets hurt or sick, they go back to Mexico. How can Americans compete with that? How can anybody? The H2B program allows employers to establish work conditions that haven't been legal since the early 1900's.

Instead of increassing pay and benefits to stimulate productivity in a highly competitive job market, employers sign up for the H2B program because it's cheaper. The process isn't easy and there are requirements that must be met but once the employer learns to navigate the red tape, the pipeline of cheap captive labor is open.

Illegal immigrants are actually better because they put most of their money back into the local economy when they pay rent, purchase food or acquire relaible trnasportation. H2B employees send most of their money back to Mexico as their living expenses are covered by the employer. Still, illegal immigrants drive wages down because their choices are limited by education and language barriers. The difference is that employers don't control those choices.

The H2B program was created to provide qualifying companies with a legal means of acquiring labor that was once only available through illegal immigrants. Instead of risking heavy fines and sanctions associated with violating INS regulations, employers can artificially drive American workers out of the market. It's becoming increasingly difficult for skilled and semi-skilled laborers to find gainful employment.

Corporate outsourcing is an extension of the same problem. Labor is cheaper overseas because those people live in conditions Americans find unacceptable but as long as those computer programs are packed five to a shanty in Bashur, the greedy senior executives who contracted them don't have to think about it. It's unfair to expect American workers to compete with people who live with a drastically reduced cost of living and the consequences of exporting jobs while we import cheap labor will be severe for everybody. How will companies make money when nobody can afford to buy their products?

Illegal immigration is a smoke screen. Spending more money to "secure" or borders fails to address the issue. Threatening resident aliens with prison time and deportation will not solve the problem. We have a serious problem but in order to solve it we need to take a long hard look at the actual value of the goods and services we depend on. Where do people get the money to purchase them? Yes, it's great to get your grass cut for $30 a week and a new roof for $2000 is a fantastic deal but what's the actual cost? What impact will your thriftiness have on your son's career? The economy is cyclical; if we allow that cycle to be broken everybody will pay a devastating price. We have already started making those payments.

Lou Dobbs can rant and rave from his anchor desk but has he ever stopped to wonder why those peaches were only 98 cents a pound? Does he think about who made his shoes or where his landscaper got his crew? Talk is cheap, Mr. Dobbs. Illegal immigrants aren't causing the problem…we need to address our greed. Before it consumes us.

1 comment:

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