People Get Ready

[ make levees, not war ]

No easy work for New Orleans workers

Posted by schroeder915 on December 18, 2005

Martin Gutierrez, director of the Hispanic Apostolate of the Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans, quoted in a The Washington Post story titled “In New Orleans, No Easy Work for Willing Latinos”:

“If you had a system by which these workers could become legal workers in the U.S., then the wages would increase.”

I know and respect Martin Gutierrez, and I share his passion for justice for Hispanic laborers. I too would like to see a world in which people didn’t have to travel thousands of miles, and risk death crossing the U.S. border, just so they can make $5 an hour to put a meager roof over their families’ heads, and have enough left over to to do more than just buy some masa and frijoles, but to possibly send their children to school. These are humble, generous, hard-working people, well-deserving of our compassion and care. I lived in Honduras for two years, I’ve studied Latin American history, politics, and economics. I care deeply about people from Latin America.

When considering the question of means and ends, however, I disagree that President Bush’s idea for a guest-worker program will improve the fortunes of immigrant laborers — or legal workers. The only advantage — and it is significant — would be that immigrant workers would have legal rights to, for example, sue their bosses for wages not paid — something that carpetbagging contractors have been doing quite a lot around New Orleans. In the end, however, the status of immigrant workers will not improve until the status of domestic workers improves.

Looking at the issue from a supply and demand perspective, rather than a workers’ justice perspective, I argue that a different outcome would result from a guest-worker program as long as we remain an economically stratified society that glorifies consumption, that pays for its excesses with debt, and rewards celebrities more than it rewards hard work and a good education.

Gutierrez said he thought wages would increase for legalized immigrant workers. I don’t see how that’s possible. If the supply of workers — legal or illegal — were increased, more workers competing for the same jobs would drive down wages, since bosses could just pay the next guy who’s willing to work for less money. Wages remain high, by contrast, only when the supply of labor is relatively scarce compared to the number of jobs, or when productivity increases and each laborer produces more goods or services. When our nation starts to focus on education and professional training as the key to our success in the future, then there truly will be room for both immigrant workers, and higher-compansated domestic workers.

Why would President Bush be so interested in a guest-worker program if it isn’t good for either immigrant workers or domestic workers? Maybe for the same reason that he isn’t now enforcing laws against contractors hiring illegal workers around New Orleans — because it helps Bush’s friends at KBR, The Shaw Group, and Bechtel who got those no-bid contracts to clean up debris around New Orleans. Illegal immigrants, as would legal “guest workers,” keep wages down precisely because employers don’t have to shop around for a comparatively smaller number of workers.

As I’ve pointed out elsewhere in PGR, we already have a guest-worker program. It’s called ICE — that’s the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency. If you don’t recognize the name, that’s what was formerly the Immigration and Naturalization Service as it reformed to work within the DHS (the Department of Homeland Security Spying). When the ICE was patrolling New Orleans, officers were under explicit orders not to conduct immigration enforcement activities. Now, ICE officers aren’t even in New Orleans. I presume they’ve returned to the border where they’ve probably been given orders to issue maps to New Orleans to people coming into the U.S. to work.

I would support a guest-worker program, but only if real exceptions were made, for example, in instances of major disasters like Hurricane Katrina — only if real justice were also pursued for American workers. Except for the descendants of this continent’s original inhabitants, we are all children of immigrants. We all have family members from somewhere else, who somewhere back in time struggled to make a better life for themselves and their families here in the United States. Those immigrants helped build a nation of diversity, innovation, and strength. Immigration should be understood as a positive force in society — if it is allowed within a system of laws that preserves the rights of all workers.

Hundreds of thousands of people from New Orleans remain scattered across a broad diaspora, homeless, jobless, penniless, worried, scared, uncertain about the future, frustrated that local, state, and especially federal leaders don’t seem to appreciate how incredibly dire the situation is for victims of Hurricane Katrina.

And yes, believe me when I say it, people are dying — people are committing suicide. I’ve heard of a pair of first-hand accounts, and I’ve read press accounts, of people so desperate and hopeless that they’re committing suicide. Why? Why? Why? Why is the tragedy that struck New Orleans August 29th, now almost four months later, still kicking people in the gut every single day they wake up. Why is it that citizens of the United States of America are allowing a tragedy that befell this region on August 29th to continue unfolding its misery day after day!

Gutierrez repeated the same argument that Bush and others have repeated:

“You have a labor force willing to come in and live and work in conditions others are not willing to.”

No! People will do almost any kind of work if you pay them what is fair compensation for the work. What you have instead, is an employer force that is unwilling to pay what it can hire someone else to do for cheaper. Americans will, in fact, live and work under almost any conditions when they have to. The Washington Post observed that immigrants are sleeping on floors in moldy houses. Lots of Americans are doing the same thing — the only difference is that they own those homes.

Because The Washington Post and other press agencies aren’t hiring locals to help with their reporting, they continue to make remarkably shallow assumptions about the situation here. The guest-worker story in today’s WAPO was authored by a staff writer from Washington, with contributions by Ceci Connolly in Atlanta, and Lucy Shackelford in Washington. Well-meaning but ignorant reporting is producing simple off-the-cuff statements such as the following (my emphasis):

In a speech to a business group, Mayor C. Ray Nagin asked how he could “stop New Orleans from being overrun by Mexican workers.” At a New Orleans town hall meeting in Atlanta, displaced black civil rights activist Carl Galmon complained: “They’re bringing in foreign workers from South America, Central America and Mexico, paying them $5 an hour sometimes for 80 hours a week. They are undercutting the American labor force in New Orleans.”

But, judging from the miles and miles of houses waiting to be gutted or repaired, there has been no great rush to snap up the work that Galmon fears losing to undocumented laborers. The city is awash in “Now Hiring” signs, and complaints about labor shortages are endemic.

Oh really? Now what might explain that labor shortage? Well, for one, it was cheaper for contractors to recruit illegal immigrants rather than do what they should have been required to do in order to get those contracts — that is, contractors — at least the big ones — should have been required to set up job fairs in FEMA centers around the country, and to populate their pool of laborers with a percentage of local workers.

The other factor that explains why there is a labor shortage is that there’s nowhere for people to live. Actually, there are places for people to live — where, after all, are immigrants living? I see them living in tent cities and motels all over Orleans and Jefferson parishes. I have to believe there are quite a few locals who’d be willing to settle for a motel in New Orleans and be employed, than a hotel somewhere else and be unemployed.

I say yes, let’s have compassion for immigrant workers. But let’s not be mistaken about what the implications are for domestic workers. Where in the current discussion about immigrant workers is the compassion for domestic workers, New Orleanians, American citizens! Where’s the story about why there’s no easy work for willing New Orleans workers?

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One Response to “No easy work for New Orleans workers”

  1. Polimom said

    Hi Schroeder,

    You and I – like so many people – share a common goal: rebuild the city of New Orleans. Make it safe, and get the people home so they can get their lives going again. I understand your passion, and you wrote it well.

    But do you remember the buses Jesse Jackson was bringing into NOLA a couple of months ago? They went through 5 (I think) major cities that had evacuees. They ended up in New Orleans with something like 100 people, only a handful of whom were actual residents.

    Why would that be? Obviously, there’s plenty of work, and as you point out, there are a lot of people living in and working on their mold-infested homes.

    There are probably as many answers as there are people for why someone might choose a temporary residence in Atlanta rather than a temporary residence in NOLA.

    Maybe you’re right – the local residents would be willing to come back and sleep in tents or whatever, and do the clearing and cleaning of the city – even at the $150 / day the guy they profiled in the WaPo article earned.

    Personally, I wish they would. It would show – like nothing else can – where the spirit of the city lies.

    Til they do, though, the work has to get done…

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