Monday, April 10, 2006

Domestic Workers: Absent, or Just Not Docile Enough?

One of the great, unresolved issues in the immigration debate is whether or not undocumented immigrant workers are displacing native Americans from jobs that citizens would otherwise be doing. There's been a bit of renewed attention in the media recently about the plight of black males in this country, and their lack of economic progress - and for those of us who sympathize with immigrants and their desire to build a better life away from Third World conditions at home, there's always a twinge in the back of the mind, wondering whether, when we welcome those immigrants, the people who lose out in the U.S. are the ones who can least afford it.

Erik Eckholm had a piece in the NY Times [no longer available free online], "Plight Deepens for Black Men, Studies Warn", in which he noted

Black men in the United States face a far more dire situation than is portrayed by common employment and education statistics, a flurry of new scholarly studies warn, and it has worsened in recent years even as an economic boom and a welfare overhaul have brought gains to black women and other groups. Focusing more closely than ever on the life patterns of young black men, the new studies, by experts at Columbia, Princeton, Harvard and other institutions, show that the huge pool of poorly educated black men are becoming ever more disconnected from the mainstream society, and to a far greater degree than comparable white or Hispanic men.Especially in the country's inner cities, the studies show, finishing high school is the exception, legal work is scarcer than ever and prison is almost routine, with incarceration rates climbing for blacks even as urban crime rates have declined....

¶The share of young black men without jobs has climbed relentlessly, with only a slight pause during the economic peak of the late 1990's. In 2000, 65 percent of black male high school dropouts in their 20's were jobless — that is, unable to find work, not seeking it or incarcerated. By 2004, the share had grown to 72 percent, compared with 34 percent of white and 19 percent of Hispanic dropouts. Even when high school graduates were included, half of black men in their 20's were jobless in 2004, up from 46 percent in 2000.

¶Incarceration rates climbed in the 1990's and reached historic highs in the past few years. In 1995, 16 percent of black men in their 20's who did not attend college were in jail or prison; by 2004, 21 percent were incarcerated. By their mid-30's, 6 in 10 black men who had dropped out of school had spent time in prison.

¶In the inner cities, more than half of all black men do not finish high school.

Inevitably, the jobs that young men without high school degrees could hope to obtain and keep are similar to the ones that young men without legal documentation can hope to obtain: handymen, kitchen staff, agricultural workers, etc.

I was reminded of this by the recent Philadelphia Weekly cover story, "Mi Casa, Su Casa", about the large number of immigrants from a single Mexican village who have come to take jobs in Philly in bars and restaurants. The author reports that
For Philadelphia restaurant owners, the arrival of this new immigrant community was a blessing. For one thing, it coincided with the city's restaurant boom, which was then having a hard time finding reliable workers to take the low-end kitchen jobs. ...And along with their labor and restaurant experience, the community also brought history, culture and values. "They're very professional and very disciplined," restaurateur Guillermo says of the San Matean workers. "People who stay out of trouble."
Note the adjective employed: it wasn't just 'workers' that restaurants were supposedly having trouble finding, it was "reliable workers." Philadelphia is about 43% black, and plenty of the black men are unemployed, and could use the work in the booming business of overpriced restaurants. So, is that really what's going on? Restaurants simply find - or assume - that black males aren't 'reliable' workers?

A deeper picture of what 'reliable' may mean for low-wage employers turned up in Sunday's NY Times - via the Reality-Based Community:
Some [employers] expressed concern about the provision that would have granted citizenship to immigrants who had been in the United States for at least five years, saying it might have encouraged them to quit or be less productive. "The illegals are probably better workers than the legal ones," said Mike Gonya, who farms 2,800 acres of wheat and vegetables near Fremont, Ohio. "The legal ones know the system. They know legal recourse. The illegal ones will bust their butts."

So there's a great big honking hint about the sort of 'reliability' that these employers are seeking: workers who can be relied upon not to know the system, and to bust their butts because they have no legal recourse to do otherwise. American-born workers aren't needed, because they don't take kindly to serf status, and they expect things like raises and time off. That's not the only reason restaurants won't hire black men - the studies referenced by Eckholm, and discussed recently by Orlando Patterson, document depressingly high crime rates, which can't be explained away simply by discriminatory enforcement - but it's one huge reason.

The Simpsons last night tackled this issue when Homer took charge of Burns' newly outsourced nuclear plant in India, and gained the worshipful adoration of his subcontinental workforce because he told them all about overtime, sick leave, vacation, vesting pension options, and other goodies. Lisa congratulated him for having broken new ground as the first to outsource the American worker's sense of entitlement and privilege. A silly laugh was had by all. [Except Maggie.] None of those things, though, are bad things - we should want all workers everywhere, ultimately, to have all of those privileges and entitlements. That's why it's especially important that any serious new immigration legislation provide for the ability of immigrant workers to defend themselves without fear of deportation, and ultimately to achieve citizenship. Low-wage employers shouldn't be able to treat anyone as serfs, whether they're immigrants or natives.

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