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Testimony : ONE PERSON’S STORY ABOUT UNDOCUMENTED WORKERS : ‘On a Daily Basis, We All Reap Benefit of Immigrants’

Whenever we have hard economic times people start talking about the problems caused by immigrants. But there is one aspect that never seems to enter the debate: the lack of enforcement of the labor laws. That’s what has happened in the fuss about Cabinet members.

During the (Senate hearings on attorney general nominee Zoe Baird) no one seemed interested in how much the undocumented workers she hired were paid; was it minimum wage? what (the workers’) obligations were, their hours and if medical benefits were included. To turn that into a child-care issue was absurd. This was not a working-class woman going crazy trying to find affordable child care. This is someone who could easily afford child care. The hypocrisy of our immigration policy was exemplified by those hearings, which ignored the legal questions relating to working conditions.

For people of that income level, the availability of child care is not an issue; they have access to whatever they want. Yet, if they see an opportunity to get quality work at bargain rates, then that’s the way they’re going to go. There wouldn’t be an immigration issue if they paid a decent wage and labor laws were enforced.

All workers are supposed to be covered by labor laws. But since the passage of employer sanctions, the labor law area has been completely neglected, even though laws concerning minimum wage, overtime, child labor, sexual harassment, do exist and apply to undocumented workers.

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Yet in the six-county area of Southern California, there are only 18 enforcement agents for the Department of Labor. We’ve got the immigrant population of half the country here.

If the labor laws were enforced and these jobs were paying what they deserve to be paid you might have less of a pull of available jobs attracting the immigrant, since citizen workers would then take those jobs.

The attraction of undocumented workers is that you can get away with paying anything you want. Since employer sanction legislation went into effect in 1986, undocumented workers, and even to some extent documented workers, have no recourse because of fear of the INS and being deported if they make a labor complaint. We’ve seen many cases of perfectly documented legal, permanent, long-term residents with green cards who also are exploited and quiet because they fear losing their legal status.

Go to any day laborer corner and the one thing in common that all those folks have, is a personal experience of not being paid after they work or being paid with a rubber check, not being paid what they were promised.

We get cases almost daily of workers who are working under conditions that the general public doesn’t realize exists in this day and age. People being held as slaves, basically. These folks have absolutely no recourse, no alternative. That’s the kind of job that people are talking about immigrants taking away from them--a job that they would find totally unacceptable.

Take a look at the help-wanted ads, that’s exactly the kind of worker that folks are looking for, people who have no ability to assert their rights as workers. You have domestic workers, completely isolated in private homes, who have to put up with appalling conditions of sexual harassment, who have absolutely nowhere to turn to, even if they knew what their rights were.

We do a lot of community education, just to let people know what their rights are, how to protect themselves, how to keep records, etc. That’s half the battle, but the other problem is that with folks that are undocumented, there is absolutely no protection you can offer them in exchange for them coming forward to make their claim. If they file a claim, they have to be prepared to leave the country.

Employer sanctions make it easier to exploit people, because never before in the history of this country has there been a law against working without papers. Now that underground labor force has been driven even further down. It’s resulted in worse working conditions.

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That’s why there are some employers who favor the sanctions; obviously, it’s to their benefit. This whole focus on beefing up border enforcement, beefing up employer sanctions, is a diversion. It paints the immigrant community as a mass criminal element, breaking the laws.

We don’t want to face the fact that in this country there are labor conditions reminiscent of the 1920s and ‘30s, with child labor, people held in horrible conditions, particularly in some of the smaller manufacturing operations where workers are jammed by the dozens into small apartments and barely paid.

Part of our work involves the rights of immigrants working as domestic workers. The biggest challenge was how to reach those folks. It dawned on us that we could reach this work force by riding the buses, the main arteries into the Westside. The Santa Monica, Wilshire and the Sunset bus runs is what our outreach workers do, talking to people, educating people, bringing women together for meeting to give each other support.

When you drive through Beverly Hills, all you see at the bus stops are Latinos. Most folks are live-ins who only go home on weekends--on call 24 hours a day. We’ve heard stories about well-known actors and actresses, from folks who have worked in their homes and (talk about) what’s expected of them.

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That people in those income brackets would pay an employee, any employee, such miserable wages to spend more time with their children than they do is a shameful statement. We prefer to justify it by saying we’re doing “those people” a favor by hiring them at all.

For any of us to fail to recognize that on a daily basis we all reap the benefits of immigrants and undocumented workers who cook and wash dishes in the restaurants we frequent, clean the offices we work in after we leave at night, work at the all-night gas stations and convenience stores, construct our homes, etc., is simply myopic. And yet a concern for their salaries and working conditions never comes up.

The immigrant is an easy one to blame for our problems. What about the responsibility of the individuals and businesses that routinely violate labor laws or the companies that take their manufacturing to the Third World. They blame it on the border, on the incredibly hard-working and long-suffering immigrant workers. And calling for more INS agents sounds like an easy solution, but it misses the whole point.

The main problem is the attraction of immigrants to a cheap labor market made possible by a government that systematically ignores the labor laws. If the Zoe Bairds of this world were made to pay fair and livable wages and benefits, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.

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