Sat, Feb 25, 2006 - Page 9 News List

US migrant workers labor the hard way

Migrant workers do the jobs that Americans will not do, but they are vulnerable to bigots and big business

By Gary Younge  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Half past seven on Tuesday morning and on the corner of Atlantic Avenue and Lefferts Boulevard in Queens, New York, around 20 Sikh men stamp the cold out of their feet. Brickworkers, builders and unskilled laborers all wait at the intersection for a car to stop and offer work. But the snow on the ground is an ill omen.

Construction work is scarce when the weather is this bad. So they wait.

"On a bad week you can get nothing," explains Victor Singh, who left his village near Amritsar, in India, five years ago and has not had a full-time job since. "Winter time is always slow. In the summer you can sometimes work four days a week," he says.

If nothing comes by 9am, he adds, he'll go home and come back the next day -- every day until his luck changes.

On Friday morning in New Orleans a truck pulls up and is immediately surrounded by a group of Hispanic men. The driver shouts out his needs; the men shout back their price. Across the street a banner reads: "Remember those suffering from Katrina and Rita." But why remember something you can still see?

The confederate general, high on his column in the middle of the roundabout, looks on at the haggling. Some go back to the curb; others jump in the back of the van. These scenes are replayed throughout the US every day. Scattered vignettes of supply and demand woven together with intense vulnerability that illustrate the human imperfections in a so-called perfect market.

A recent report from the University of California suggests that every morning 117,600 day laborers are hired this way. Half are employed by homeowners looking for gardening and domestic work.

Slightly more than 40 percent are employed by contractors in construction and landscaping. Nationwide, almost two-thirds are Hispanic and just over a quarter are from Central America.

Migrant laborers are crucial to the US economy. Yet xenophobia among a militant minority of the public allied with opportunism among a majority of the politicians has conspired to demonize them. The Minutemen, a vigilante group that started out hunting down illegal immigrants on the border, now targets day laborers. In December, the House of Representatives passed one of the most draconian anti-immigration bills for a generation

To his credit and his base's chagrin, US President George W. Bush has not stooped to racism on this issue, suggesting instead that once illegal immigrants have paid their fines and back-taxes, they should be allowed to stay for a fixed period of time.

Under this proposed "guest worker" program, they would then have to return home. The aim, he says is to "match willing foreign workers with willing American employers to fill jobs that Americans will not do."

The proposals have split two key pillars of the Republican base: bigots and big business. But beyond those narrow, powerful constituencies there are deeper concerns grounded in neither prejudice nor profit. Under Bush's proposals, migrant workers would remain vulnerable to abuse by unscrupulous employer-sponsors because any transgression could result in their deportation.

Moreover, Germany's postwar "guest worker" program kept German-born Turks "guests" in their own home for far too long.

"It's a recipe for a permanent underclass," explains Jennifer Gordon, an associate professor at Fordham law school and founder of the Workplace project which supports migrant day laborers in Long Island.

This story has been viewed 3557 times.

Comments will be moderated. Keep comments relevant to the article. Remarks containing abusive and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotion will be removed and the user banned. Final decision will be at the discretion of the Taipei Times.

TOP top