January 23rd, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

Their Sacred Right

There was something in the Sunday New York Times that caught my eye: Steven Greenhouse, "Broad Survey of Day Laborers Finds High Level of Injuries and Pay Violations." But the headline doesn't capture the part of the story that attracted my interest. No, what attracted my interest was that it provided a second data point towards maybe proving something disturbing that's been on my mind for a month or two. You see, buried in that article, which is about an in-depth survey of the economics and practical realities of the day labor industry that was recently completed, are these two facts. First, that 75% of the day laborers are illegal immigrants. And secondly, that the going rate for illegal immigrant day labor is $8.00 to $15.00 per hour.

The reason that this caught my eye was because of another news article that I saw maybe two months ago, about the cleanup in New Orleans. In that article, it was mentioned (also in passing) that at least 75% of the people doing decontamination and clean-up work in the parts of New Orleans that were hit the hardest by the flooding after Hurricane Katrina, are also illegal immigrants -- getting paid $15.00 to $25.00 per hour. The individuals and companies hiring them claimed that they were perfectly willing to hire returning New Orleans residents, or any American willing to travel to New Orleans to take the work, but there weren't any. American citizens, it was stated in that article, aren't willing to return to New Orleans until there are places to live, and there won't be places to live until the decontamination is done. However, there are thousands of illegal immigrants, mostly Mexicans, who are perfectly willing to camp in their vehicles or elsewhere in the ruins if the job pays $25.00 per hour.

What both of these articles have in common, though, is a third fact: that in random day labor and in the Hurricane Katrina clean-up, what the jobs have in common other than their largely illegal workforce and their remarkably high pay is that in both jobs, the employers are flagrantly ignoring worker safety rules. People cleaning toxic chemicals and poisonous mold from the walls of buildings in New Orleans aren't being provided with respirators. Day-labor construction workers are routinely sent down to work in earthen trenches that don't have the required wooden bracing to keep the trench from caving in and burying them alive. Both are being denied work breaks and even meal breaks.

When I saw the earlier story, my thought was that, contrary to the rhetoric of Lou Dobbs' ongoing crusade against illegal immigration, there apparently are jobs that Americans aren't willing to take; not because the work's too hard, or the pay to meager, but because not enough Americans are as eager to volunteer to let their bosses kill them, no matter what the job pays. This article reinforces my suspicion about that. Employers in construction, in meatpacking, in agriculture, and several other fields hire illegal immigrants not because it's cheaper; in many cases, it's just plain not. They hire them specifically for their inability to call OSHA. It's not about the money, per se, or at least it's not about the money that goes into hourly wages.

It's about the sacred right of the employer to kill the employee.