January 27, 2006

Day Labor: Undocumented, Unprotected, Unconscionable

From time to time the Insider has focused on the many compelling issues relating to undocumented workers. If you enter the words "immigrant workers"in our blog's search engine, about 30 responses pop up. There are probably 10 million undocumented workers throughout the country, performing some of the most hazardous and least desirable jobs. They usually work without the protection of any training, personal protective equipment or the fundamental rights and benefits accorded to most people who work. It's a dangerous situation that requires constant monitoring. In fact, the issue calls for a blog of its own.

We are pleased to see that our colleague, Peter Rousmaniere, has undertaken responsibility for just such a blog. His immigrant worker blog was launched earlier this week and promises to provide a steady focus on the myriad issues confronting undocument workers. While the Insider will continue to track immigrant workers occasionally, for readers in need of a daily dose, Peter's site will prove indispensable.

Day Labor
Peter guides us to a recent national study of day labor: On the Corner: Day Labor in the United States. This is a detailed survey of 2,600 day workers from across the country, written by scholars from UCLA and the University of Illinois. It's not surprising to find that among the day laborers surveyed, fully three quarters are undocumented workers. The workers report wide-spread harassment and abuse, including non-payment and underpayment of wages and frequent injuries that go both untreated and unreported.

According to the study, most day laborers are hired by contractors (43 per cent) and by "homeowners" (49 per cent) - but the homeowner category probably includes the ad hoc crew pulled together by an unincorporated, uninsured and in all likelihood, equally undocumented supervisor. What are these people doing? Landscaping, house cleaning, roofing, carpentry, painting, demolishing buildings and cleaning up debris from hurricane Katrina. Although they are invisible and below the radar screen in most conventional respects, they are working everywhere.

The study points to a number of solutions for improving the plight of these workers:
- better enforcement of existing labor laws, including fair labor standards and workers comp
- better education and advocacy for immigrant workers through worker centers such as the Brazilian immigrant center highlighted in Peter's blog
- improvement in the immigration laws - not from the enforcement side but in finding ways to legitimize undocumented workers.

I suspect that the prevailing "head in the sand" approach to undocumented workers derives from a combination of racism and blunt economics: heck, many of these workers cannot speak English and anyway, it saves money. To be sure, it's cheaper for the consumer when the worker is paid in cash, does not receive any benefits and is on his own when it comes to injuries. Cheaper, but unconscionable. The first step toward solving this huge problem is paying proper attention to it. Peter's new blog will help us do just that.

| 1 Comment

1 Comment

I commend you and your blog for addressing the plight of undocumented workers in the United States. As an immigrant from Mexico and a California Workers Compensation professional of 17+ years, I am dismayed at our country's apathy and resulting marginalization of millions of undocumented workers.

The United States is facing a serious problem of massive proportions as it continues with its "head in the sand" mentality as it fails to enact real and effective immigration reform. Unfortunately, "real immigration reform" will never come about until we as Americans realize the important contributions undocumented immigrants play in the continued growth of our economy and that absent immigrant labor our taxes and consumer goods would be far more expensive that we can imagine. Until we as American can fully acknowledge how much we not only need, but also benefit from immigrant labor, real immigration reform will never materialize, mostly because our society continues down a zenophobic and racist path. The passage of the Simpson-Mazzoli Act of 1986 provided U.S. Residency status to 6-8 Million illegal immigrantsand set stringent rules that for the past 20 years have made it extremely difficult for an illegal immigrant to ever achieve permanent legal residency in this country. The fact that Congress failed to enact real employer penalties and sanctions has created a system of complicity between employers and illegal imigrants, one that results in an employers unwillingness to scrutinize an illegal immigrants documentation thus risk its inablity hire and retain cheap labor. Ask an employer to scrutinize his potential employees documentation and you will get an employer who will balk at paying "prevailing wage" for the set of occupations he requires.

Our country's racism keeps us from considering the natural occurences that take place as people even "illegal immigrants" live their daily lives. Those groups denouncing illegal immigration and calling for mass deportations fail to understand that while our society vasilates about immigration reform, immigrants continue to come, obtain jobs you and I wont perform and have children. These children will be U.S. Citizens by virtue of hving been born here, these immigrants mostly work and eventually purchase homes and cars, they also consume all manner of goods that marketers and retailers can possibly throw their way. The United States needs to find a solution and enact workable immigration reform immediately otherwise it risks a future that will mired in race riots and a marginalized segment of the population that despite their lack of economic opportunities simply do not see returning to their native country as a feasible and viable option.

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This page contains a single entry by Jon Coppelman published on January 27, 2006 1:22 PM.

Back to the basics: Assigned risk pools and the residual market was the previous entry in this blog.

Jockeys: Coverage Update and a Scandal is the next entry in this blog.

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