They stand in icy water; in crowded conditions; wet to the skin for 18 hour shifts. They work for one of the largest food processors in the world. They are paid below legal wage, and not paid overtime. Now, 167 of them sit in ICE custody after a raid on the North Portland (Oregon) plant at which they were employed. Some had ICE agents show up at their homes and take them into custody.
The workers (including legal immigrants) were employed at $7.00 an hour (below Oregon’s minimum wage of $7.80). They worked up to 18 hour shifts with no overtime in appalling conditions. Why did the workers stay?
Rodriguez, the former worker, said most employees did not report poor conditions and long shifts to authorities for fear of losing their jobs.
“Most of them didn’t have papers to work, so they had no choice; this is where they could find work,” Rodriguez said. “It made me sad, because these people came here to work. The women had little kids at home to feed.” [Work complaints hang over plant]
Now those children, like the children of the workers arrested at Michael Bianco, Inc – a military contractor being paid with our tax dollars – sit waiting for parents who will never come home.
Meanwhile, half a world away, Chinese authorities free 200 people from slavery in the brick kilns in Xinhua Province, China. The workers, including 29 children, had been held against their will (in some cases for years), without pay, and tortured with hot bricks if they did not work “hard” enough.
Human trafficking, which seems to be an ongoing issue, has again hit the news recently. The U.S. State Department has added more countries to the trafficking list. Some are “enemies,” and some are “allies,” but they include: Iran, Uzbekistan, and North Korea, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar. Human trafficking is virtually synonymous with slavery – or at the very least extreme exploitation. According to an article by Grant Podelco “U.S. Report Decries ‘Modern-Day Slavery’” at Tolerance Canada:
“According to U.S. government estimates, approximately 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders each year and about 80 percent of them are female. Up to half are minors.”
– 640,000 women
– 400,000 children
– almost a million people a year
– many of these are for the so-called “sex trade”
They too are “illegal immigrants” and their illegal status keeps them captive – as does the undocumented status of the workers as Del Monte or Michael Bianco. No papers, no protection, easily controlled and exploitable. These are not different issues, but part of the same issue.
I just go up the wall every time I hear an employer saying “We have absolutely nothing to gain by hiring illegal immigrants.” Or, I hear “THEY are driving down our economy,” “stealing our social services,” “taking jobs away from Americans,” COSTING us BILLIONS of dollars a year …”
The undocumented worker is much more controllable than a documented or even citizen worker who has the protection of law on their side. The “legal” worker can file an OSHA complaint, or a pay complaint, without fear of losing their family and their home. The legal worker has at least some “legs” to demand the law be followed. The undocumented worker does not. The employer has the only reasons they need to recruit and hire undocumented workers – the bottom line and a compliant workforce.
Let’s look at the Del Monte situation in Portland.
There were 167 workers rounded up. If we take one 18 hour “shift” for 167 workers, getting $7.00 an hour and no overtime, it looks like this:
7.00 * 18 hrs = $126
$126 * 167 employees = $21042.00
7.80 * 8hrs= $62.40
7.80 * 1.5 (overtime)= $11.70 * 10 hours= $117.00
One worker for a full 18 hour “shift” = $179.40
$179.40 * 167 employees= $29959.80
“Costs” saved in one shift – $8917.80.
Of course, those workers not paid for all of the time they worked, and yes, 18 hour shifts are “illegal.”
This calculation doesn’t even take into consideration the “savings” of not providing safety equipment, pumps needed to keep the water off the floor, etc.
One must address the issue that they are “undocumented.” That may be because they entered the country illegally, or it may be that their documents have lapsed. It may be that they are legally in the country, but their visa only permits them to work for a specific employer – like Del Monte. However, if Del Monte chose not to put those workers with visas to work at Del Monte, then those workers would have to sit and wait – with no pay. Many do not – they work “illegally” some place else.
But why are they here? Is it because it is the “land of opportunity.” For some, this is certainly true. However, one must look at the situation which the U.S. has dramatically participated in from Mexico to the tip of South America – the economic “transformation” of the nations south of the U.S. border. NAFTA alone is estimated to have displaced 40% of the small farmers in Mexico. “Displaced” to where, and to what? For many, it is to abject poverty and they head to where jobs are – regardless of how exploitative – the United States. Or they “earn” their way across the border as drug “mules.” Or children – now mostly grown – come to join family that they have waited more than a decade to join.
The hostility of the current atmosphere is being fanned by politicians, media figures like Lou Dobbs, and by racists with their own agenda. Of course the virulence only aids those companies with undocumented workers. It creates an atmosphere of fear which makes those workers and their families only more vulnerable.
No one calculates how much “consumers” are saving because of the economic processes at play on either side of the border. No one seems to calculate how much profit is made by companies exploiting a vulnerable workforce. Few look at the fact that most of these undocumented workers are paying taxes, and paying into social security and Medicaid – though they will never draw those funds. I find it difficult to imagine that these workers cost “us” more than they contribute – willingly and unwillingly.
Don’t get me wrong. I am adamantly against “illegal” immigration. However, I am against it because of the exploitation. It is the exploitation of these workers that drives down wages and working conditions in the U.S.
While I am against “illegal” immigration, I know full well that it is not an issue that is going to be resolved with 1,000 mile double fences with predator drones, and National Guard troops. Nor will it be solved with the construction of massive prison complexes in the desert. It will not be solved until we address the forces that are pushing folks into migration – poverty and fear for their lives. It will not be solved until “We the people” stand on the side of the people rather than on the side of the corporations.
Some day we will see that the lot of the people of the world is our lot. As the hegemonic forces at play in the world continue their inexorable absorption of power and control over the means to survival, we will see clearly just how linked our lives are. We will see the similarity between the mother from El Salvador working as a housekeeper in some executive’s house, and our scrabbling for enough to keep a roof over our heads and our children fed. Some day we will see that our interests are shared with her and not with a transnational corporation. Until then, most will see the incarceration and expulsion of 167 people as some victory for “Truth, Justice, and American Security.”