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Weekly Diaspora: The high cost of cheap labour

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A new study about the effects of immigration on U.S. employment supports the long-standing arguments of immigration advocates: Rather than displacing American workers, immigrant labour actually makes our economy stronger. Kevin Drum has the details at Mother Jones.

Now, with reports that undocumented labourers are a mainstay of disaster relief efforts all over the country, Americans are beginning to get a sense of the unsavory work relegated to many immigrants, and the high price immigrants pay for the simple privilege of employment.

Undocumented workers driving wages up

Going back to Mother Jones, new research examining the relationship between immigration and U.S. employment found that -- contrary to conventional anti-immigrant wisdom -- immigration does not negatively affect American employment. Instead, immigration drives wages up by pushing low-wage American workers into higher-paying jobs.

Here's how it works: As less-educated immigrants gravitate towards work that requires fewer English language skills (like manual labour), their less-educated American counterparts move on to higher-paying, communications-intensive work that capitalizes on their comparatively better English language skills. This naturally drives wages up, and makes for a more productive economy overall.

The irony, as Drum notes, is that those who complain about immigrants stealing American jobs are the same people who want immigrants to learn English and assimilate as quickly as possible. "If they did,” Drum argues, "then they'd just start competing for the higher paying jobs that natives now monopolize."

Stiffed in New Orleans

The reality of being an undocumented worker in the U.S. is starker than most Americans realize. Not only are immigrants doing work that most would rather not, they are also often cleaning up the messes that Americans leave behind.

Five years after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, undocumented labourers remain a key component of reconstruction efforts. Initially drawn to the city by the prospect of work and the Department of Homeland Security's decision to suspend employment immigration enforcement, many undocumented laborers relocated to New Orleans to assist with rebuilding. But, as Elise Foley reports at the Washington Independent, their immigration status renders them especially vulnerable to rampant wage theft, threats of deportation and workplace violence.

The situation is so dire for many workers that numerous nonprofit groups have initiated projects in the city and are calling for legislation to combat the problem. However, a key concern is that rising anti-immigrant sentiment in other parts of the U.S. could exacerbate difficulties in New Orleans. If such sentiment results in even greater labour abuses or renewed immigration enforcement, whole communities of people who have been dedicated to rebuilding the city could find themselves without livelihood, or even be displaced.

Exploited undocumented workers clean up oil spills

Given the reality that undocumented workers are  charged with some of the dirtiest and most unsafe work American employers have to offer, it shouldn't be surprising that U.S. companies rely on immigrant labor to clean up their worst messes. Not only do undocumented workers have fewer employment options, their immigration status renders them far less likely to report unsafe working conditions, exposure to hazardous materials, and underpayment -- making them especially attractive to employers looking to save money or hide bad behavior.

So, naturally, undocumented workers were called in to deal with the catastrophic BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico (though their compliance only earned them the undue attention of Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and, more recently, an oil spill in Michigan.

As Todd A. Heywood at the Michigan Messenger reports, one company in particular has come under fire for hiring and then exploiting undocumented labourers. Hallmark Industrial, a Texas contractor hired to clean up the oil spill, allegedly paid its workers only $800 for up to 100 hours of work per week. Additionally, the company subjected them to unsafe and hazardous working conditions, and even failed to provide workers with on-site toilets -- forcing workers to relieve themselves in the areas they were charged with cleaning.

Just 24 hours after the Michigan Messenger broke the story, Hallmark Industrial was fired from the oil spill clean up, its contract terminated by the company which hired it, Garner Environmental Services, Inc. Whether that’s a victory is questionable. Following the termination of the contract, 40 undocumented workers were arrested in Texas, on a bus chartered by Hallmark -- presumably just returned from Michigan. While the termination of the contract ensures that its workers won't be subjected to further workplace abuses, it also ensures that those same individuals must begin the difficult task of finding similar work elsewhere.

Unemployed in California labour camps

Clearly, despite an inexorable willingness to perform low-wage manual labour, undocumented workers are not impervious to the unemployment epidemic. In U.S. labor camps -- where migrant agricultural workers can find seasonal or even long term lodging near ranches -- farm work is increasingly harder to come by.

As David Bacon highlights at New America Media, both undocumented immigrants and legal "guest workers" are adversely affected by the recession. While the latter possess work visas and may therefore stay in the country legally, both groups live together in the same labour camps, where they remain, ironically, unemployed. Given the present economic climate, there isn't enough work for even the lowest-wage workers. And in spite of their legal status, even guest workers are barred from applying for unemployment benefits.

The recession has cast both undocumented and legally sanctioned agricultural workers into circumstances even more dismal than those advertised by UFW when it launched its "Take Our Jobs" campaign earlier this summer. Outlining the long hours, low pay, and back-breaking labour associated with farm work, UFW satirically invited American citizens to replace the scores of overworked and undocumented labourers that keep our agricultural industry afloat.

Though meant to be a tongue-in-cheek response to the misconception that immigrants steal American jobs, the campaign exposes a real, if unfortunate, truth about undocumented workers: Even as their presence drives Americans into higher paying jobs, Americans employers are all too happy to subject the undocumented to the worst indignities.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about immigration by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Diaspora for a complete list of articles on immigration issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, and health care issues, check out The Audit, The Mulch, and The Pulse. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

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