Their stories, in their own words
October 28, 2014 9:42 AM   Subscribe

Amnesty for undocumented immigrants can't come soon enough. Not to mention stronger rights and better working conditions for day laborers.

Thanks for the post, josher71.
posted by twirlip at 11:07 AM on October 28, 2014 [4 favorites]

Definitely, thanks for posting.

This would also be interesting as comparative across the multiple jurisdictions. The story mentions that NY attorney general made Signal Restoration by $500k in back wages, is wage theft more or less common in NY, CT, NJ, PA? How do protections for the undocumented vary by state, and what are the effects?

You see, for instance, really big differences between California and Texas for migrant agricultural workers, as California has a very strong OSHA and less interested. (This is in no way to claim that agricultural workers are treated "well" in California--just that the legal regime makes a big difference.) I'd expect that you could do some great journalism charting these across the greater NYC metro area, with the multiple state and city jurisdictions in a similar cultural area.

Wage theft, however, is something that may or may not vary. Do employers exploit illegality more or less equally across the US in terms of wages? My suspicion is that they don't, but I've only got suspicions.
posted by migrantology at 11:47 AM on October 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

migrantology: Wage theft, however, is something that may or may not vary. Do employers exploit illegality more or less equally across the US in terms of wages?
Since we never hear about a rational guest worker system even when discussing immigration reform, my intuition is that the lack of meaningful wage, hour, and safety protections for undocumented workers is seen as a feature not a bug by those that hire them.

Thanks for posting this, josher71.
posted by ob1quixote at 12:16 PM on October 28, 2014

ob1quixote, sure, of course. But that doesn't mean we should assume that wage theft and forms of worker exploitation occur evenly across the U.S.

The OSHA example was meant to suggest that these things differ widely at sub-national scales. In terms of not dying on the job, if you're undocumented you're better off in California than Texas for the same job.

More broadly, you definitely see employers or, even more commonly, managers make arrangements for undocumented workers that don't exploit them to the fullest extent they could get away with. Lisa Dodson has written about this for legal workers, for instance. It's crucial to recognize that people often don't just act as economic, profit-maximizing individuals even when the opportunity presents itself. There are tons of social bounds to how profit is acquired, but also subjective bounds that work outside of relations of the potential for public shaming (e.g., the argument that employers won't use sweatshops in the U.S. because of the potential consequences in the public eye if caught, which is not nearly as common a way of thinking as economic rationales would imply).

My suspicion, however, is also that small jurisdictional differences can make a big difference in both working conditions and the moral force of what people think is ok. That's part of why NYC makes for an interesting case (maybe?) because it has a bunch of different jurisdictions coming together.
posted by migrantology at 12:39 PM on October 28, 2014

Two years ago, I was in limbo on my employment-based Green Card and possibly looking at having to self-deport when my visa expired in a year. A lot of it was waiting for decisions that were out of my hands, so I had to find something to do to take my mind off the anxiety. When Sandy smacked into New York, I wound up taking bus trips down to volunteer. I had done disaster response work in the past, and the non-profit that I usually work with, All Hands, had deployed to Staten Island and Long Island within days of the storm.

In the immediate first few months of recovery, the impact zones were chock-a-block with dozens of aid groups -- Red Cross, Salvation Army, Church of Latter Day Saints, Occupy, Habitat, etc. and being there in October and November had this sort of benevolent intensity, as you had a lot of folks going in with good hearts and intentions. However, you'd also see a lot of private construction crews making the rounds, and it was all kind of patchwork. Some people got their insurance payout early or were emptying a literal rainy day fund and were getting homes worked. Others were still navigating bureaucracy, trying to piece things together. Our volunteer group was getting called in to help a variety of folks -- middle class, working class, retired class.

We emptied out those basements with knee deep water like some of the folks in that article talked about. I remember spending two whole days in a hoarder's dark, 600 sq. ft. flooded basement, hauling out garbage bags full of shattered records, waterlogged encyclopedias, and mildewed prom dresses. There's a particular kind of terror that comes when you're walking in black water that's shin deep and feel your foot slipping on a piece of wet submerged vinyl, and trying to remember if your tetanus shots are up to date, because the last thing you need is to fall onto a submerged carpentry nail.

It was a nice house, and I remember while we were having our lunch, we asked our team leads, "Hey, what's the story with these folks? Why do they need volunteers? They look like they can take care of themselves and pay for professionals."

"Oh, they tried. They got a couple different professional hazardous waste teams to look at that basement, and all of them told that family 'no, thanks.' Too much work and too much risk compared to other jobs in this town. So they asked us to do it, and here we are."

After Christmas, I kept going down, but started doing it less frequently but with more groups of friends. We kickstarted a group fund to basically cover the cost of tolls and gas, and would get 10 to 15 of us to go at a time. The aid groups got thinned out. Church groups ran out of funding first and left. Occupy lost momentum gradually. You could still see some supply trucks from the Red Cross doing their sweeps, but mostly it was private construction from what I could see. Still, we kept getting jobs. Another house needs to be gutted in Long Beach. Someone else needs mold treatment in Lindenhurst.

Increasingly what we'd also see were abuses of carpetbagging and profit-taking. People who got contractors to work on their house found that the jobs weren't up to snuff and weren't passing inspection, but the contractors had long since left town with their FEMA money, and stopped answering their phones. So, these newly impoverished homeowners had to ask for volunteers to re-gut their homes and reinstall drywall.

And, yeah, minorities figured heavily in the crew that we'd see around. Go to a pizza place around the corner from a wrecked neighborhood and all the people with cruddy boots were us and a bunch of visible minorities. I honestly don't know how much of the shoddiness that we had seen was done by people who weren't trained properly or asked to cut corners or doing good work based on cheap or corrupt directions; but we saw a lot of it and we all just kind of assumed that everyone we passed by in places like that were peers with good intentions because how else are you supposed to live your life? Still, this may just be noble savage bias, but we couldn't look at these groups of day labourers and imagine that they were somehow fleecing all of these homeowners for their cash. No, if anyone's being a villain in this story, it's the general contractor squeezing a desperate homeowner for their insurance money and then paying undocumented labourers pennies out of their cut because they can.

I remember there was one house that we worked that had a cast iron bathtub that had been earmarked for removal, and it took three of us guys, two rock climbers and one burly Crossfit junkie, to wrestle it to a curb for waste disposal. It sat on that curb for maybe 30 minutes before this white van pulls up and a middle aged Latino guy jumps out and points at it and asks, "salva?" and I kind of nod. One of my friends gets up to help the dude because it's a cast iron freaking bathtub, but before any of us could reach him, he grabbed a handcart from his van, tipped the bathtub onto it by himself, loaded the tub into his van and drove off. Someone else on our crew just smirked and said, "that's the difference between a dude who works his ass off everyday doing this shit all day and us weekend wannabes."

I still don't have my Green Card, but I'm in a better, less anxiety ridden position with my immigration status. I'm glad that I did that stint of volunteering as it gave me a lot of respect for people who get things donewho care about doing it well, and the laughable naivete that goes into any proposal by anybody that we could somehow outsource disaster response to the private sector. That will always be an absolute shitshow with construction companies doing their best to abuse the homeowners who will be in desperate need for help and exploit workers like in this article who only want to offer that help.

And also without worker protection laws or minimum wage mandates or fair and above board treatment of migrants, then this cycle will just repeat itself over and over again in other sectors. Construction used to be a good solid, blue collar trade. Under the table hiring will just spiral that down to the bottom. We can not keep saying that immigrants are just taking the jobs that no American wants to take. Those jobs are being turned into shitty things that no American wants to take because they're being offered at wages no American would be paid in. In a fair society, Sandy reconstruction should have been a boon to the construction industry, something to give it a brief stimulus out of the housing crash. In reality, there was probably a fair amount of that, but also a whole bunch of skimming and graft with people on the customer side and the street labor side getting their pockets picked by a bunch of people in the middle.
posted by bl1nk at 6:30 PM on October 28, 2014 [5 favorites]

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