Ninety percent—or 60 million of the world’s estimated 67 million domestic workers, some 80 percent of whom are women—labor without any basic social security protections, says a new International Labor Organization (ILO) report. Developing countries have the biggest gaps in coverage but wealthier nations are not immune to this problem.
According to the report, 60 percent of domestic workers in Italy are outside the country’s social security system, as are 30 percent of domestic workers in France and Spain. And here in the U.S., domestic workers—housekeepers, house cleaners, nannies, child and elder care providers among others—are not covered by many of the basic workplace protections that most employees take for granted.
“I would like that we stop being invisible to society,” says Maria Esther Bolaños, who works as a housekeeper in Chicago. Domestic workers “want to be respected and valued,” says Magdelena Zylinska, a domestic worker, also in Chicago who’s been cleaning homes since 1997. “That’s so little really, just to be treated with respect,” says Zylinska. “Everybody who works wants that. We’re not asking for anything extraordinary.”
Historically, most U.S. domestic workers have been excluded from labor protections granted other workers, explains Zylinska. But “we are normal people with children and financial responsibilities,” she says. “That’s why I think it’s important that people recognize us as workers in general and give us more support and rights just as regular workers.”
Both Bolaños and Zylinska are working with groups that are part of the National Domestic Workers Alliance for passage of an Illinois state law that would extend basic employment protections to domestic workers. Among these provisions are written contracts, schedules that specify work hours, meal and other breaks and coverage by state laws that guarantee minimum wages, one day of rest in seven and those of the Illinois Human Rights Act.
If passed, the Illinois bill—known as the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights (HB1288)— would be the seventh such U.S. state bill. So far only California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New York and Oregon have comparable laws.
Nationally, U.S. domestic workers are covered by Social Security but not by the Occupational Health and Safety Act. Nor do they receive benefits of the Family and Medical Leave Act, Americans with Disabilities Act or the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. And until 1974, when Congress extended the Fair Labor Standards Act to cover domestic workers, U.S. workers employed directly by households were without minimum wage and overtime protections. In 2013, a new Department of Labor rule revised regulations to better cover domestic caregivers under the Fair Labor Standards Act, but leaves U.S. domestic workers without many basic employment protections.
“We have no basic benefits like sick leave,” explains Sally Richmond, who has worked for years providing child care and is a community organizer with the Alliance of Filipinos for Immigrant Rights and Empowerment (AFIRE).
Poor working conditions, long hours and low wages
As described by the ILO report, “Domestic work has traditionally been characterized by poor working conditions, long hours, low wages, forced labor and little or no social protection. In other words, domestic workers are exposed to conditions that are far from the concept of decent work promoted by the ILO. This situation largely reflects the low social and economic value societies usually place on this activity. This is often reflected by the absence of adequate laws and the lack of effective enforcement of those that do exist.”
While domestic work is some of the lowest paid and least protected in the world—in some places earning no more than half the average wage—so many people do this work that, according to the ILO, “if all domestic workers worked in one country, that country would be the world’s tenth largest employer.” Domestic workers also have some of the longest and most unpredictable work hours of any employees.
Add to this, the fact that most of the world’s domestic workers are women, makes this workforce socially and economically vulnerable to additional discrimination, says the ILO. Extending basic social protections to domestic workers is key to fighting poverty and promoting gender equality, said Philippe Marcadent, Chief of the ILO’s Inclusive Labour Markets, Labour Relations and Working Conditions Branch in a statement. The ILO report also points out that many of the estimated 55 million women engaged in domestic work around the world—a number that is likely an undercount—are also migrants, which adds to their vulnerability to discrimination and unfair labor practices.
“Most of us are immigrants and come from really poor countries,” says Zylinska. There are many domestic workers that are supporting “not only their families here but also families in their [home] countries.” Language differences and concerns about immigration status add to the daily employment uncertainties for many domestic workers, say Bolaños and Zylinska.
ILO agreement on domestic workers rights—not ratified by the U.S.
As part of its efforts to improve working conditions and labor protections for domestic workers, in 2011 the ILO adopted what’s called the Domestic Workers Convention that requires countries that ratify the agreement to ensure that domestic workers labor rights are no “less favorable” than those of other workers—including with respect to social security protection and maternity protections. The Convention outlines basic labor rights to include working hours, wage, occupational health and safety, child and migrant workers protections. It also underlines the importance of organizations that represent both domestic workers and those who employ them. But so far, only 22 countries have ratified the Convention. The United States is not among them.
Unlike those employed by more formal workplaces—those outside private homes—around the world, domestic workers typically lack comparable enforceable policies on working hours, occupational health and safety protections, maternity leave, workplace inspections and access to information on labor rights—including the right to organize and form unions.
Many domestic workers “are afraid to complain for fear of losing their job,” says Richmond. “My hope is for this work to be professionalized,” she says. Working with the Union Latina, helps “teach us how we can protect ourselves against abuse and wage theft and how we can take sick days,” says Bolaños. “We don’t have contracts, today I have a job, tomorrow I don’t have a job. It’s a very unregulated business,” explains Zylniska.
But all these basic workplace and labor protections are feasible and affordable, says the ILO report—even for middle and low-income countries. Yet while it documents increasing social security coverage for domestic workers worldwide, these policies often exclude migrant workers who make up at least one-sixth of this global workforce. While fixing these problems can’t be accomplished by one single policy model, said senior ILO economist Fabio Duran-Valverde in a statement, “mandatory coverage (instead of voluntary coverage) is a crucial element for achieving adequate and effective coverage under any system.”
While U.S. law provides protections for domestic worker not guaranteed in other countries, this household-based workforce still lacks coverage provided to other American employees. And given the nature of the domestic workplace ensuring change even when policies shift can be difficult.
“The laws on the books are one thing, but we’ve always been really aware that conditions for domestic workers don’t automatically change when a bill is signed into law,” says National Domestic Workers Alliance campaign director, Andrea Mercado. To make these changes, “It’s going to require a culture shift and a public conversation around domestic work and care work and why we should value it,” she says. “That’s kind of our struggle,” says Zylinska.
The Illinois Domestic Workers Bill of Rights now has 21 Senate and 33 House sponsors. A spokesperson for lead sponsor state Senator Ira Silverstein said the bill is expected to be reintroduced this month and could move swiftly toward a vote.
This blog was originally posted on inthesetimes.org on April 12, 2016. Reprinted with permission.
Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Yale e360, Environmental Health Perspectives, Mother Jones, Ensia, Time, Civil Eats, The Guardian, The Washington Post, Salon and The Nation.
The Inter-American Court of Human Rights ordered the Dominican Republic to reform all national laws blocking the recognition of citizenship for children of undocumented parents born in the country.
The decision, dated Aug. 28, 2014, was made public on Oct. 22, 2014, according to a story today in El Dia, a national newspaper in the Dominican Republic. The sentence orders the country to adopt the necessary measures to ensure no laws or rules deny Dominican nationality to children born in the country to undocumented parents who migrated there.
The decision comes in a case in which 27 people were deported, five of them Haitian children residing in the Dominican Republic and 22 of whom were found to be Dominicans.
“The court found the existence, at least for a period of around one decade after 1990, a systematic pattern of expulsions, including through collective acts of Haitians and people of Haitian descent, which reflects a discriminatory conception,” according to El Dia, quoting the court statement. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights is part of the Organization of American States.
In September 2013, the Dominican Republic’s Constitutional Court issued a ruling that retroactively took away citizenship from individuals unable to prove their parents’ regular migration status.
The ruling would have barred such individuals from any activity that required official identification, including working in the formal sector, attending school, opening a bank account, paying into retirement or social security funds, accessing health services, getting married, traveling or voting, according to an AFL-CIO and Solidarity Center report.
Further, it disproportionately affected individuals of Haitian descent living and working in the Dominican Republic.
Hailing the court decision, Geoff Herzog, Solidarity Center Dominican Republic country program director, said, “the Solidarity Center joins with our union allies and with our allies in the migrant support community in defense of migrant worker rights.
“We support recognition of citizenship for Dominicans of Haitian descent who are blocked from citizenship and therefore, are denied their basic human and labor rights.”
This appeared in AFL-CIO.org on October 27, 2014, and is Originally from Solidarity Center Website. Reprinted with permission. http://www.solidaritycenter.org/content.asp?contentid=1955.
Adareli Ponce is a typical working woman in America, but her work experience is not typically “American.” Even though the products of the labor of women like her are everywhere, her story is invisible to many. As the main provider for her family back in Hidalgo, Mexico, the 31-year-old has spent years slogging away in U.S. chocolate and seafood processing facilities. Migration was her chance to escape the entrenched poverty that ensnares so many young women in her hometown, who she says are often excluded from sustainable job opportunities. But the journey has been fraught with hardship and loneliness.
Because most migrant workers are men, Ponce said in her public testimony, “migrant women are commonly excluded and made invisible in debates about immigration.” But they make up as much as over 40 percent of the low-wage immigrant labor force, according to some estimates, and they face gender-specific problems ranging from sexual harassment on the job to the challenges of transborder motherhood.
If migrant women are missing from the immigration debate, they are also excluded from conversations about U.S. women in the workforce, which tend to dwell on white-collar problems like the gender pay gap and the corporate “glass ceiling.” Migrant women face much more basic problems: how to stave off sexual abuse and cope with long-term separation from their children, which compound issues common to migrants of all genders, like crushing poverty or heat exhaustion and toxic fumes in farm fields.
Ironically, migrant women workers have propelled opportunities for middle-class Americans. Moms who work outside of the home can better achieve work/life balance thanks to options like a migrant nanny at home or frozen seafood dinners processed by the industries fueled by migrant women’s labor.
Women in Hidalgo generally are willing to endure the hardship of temporary work in the U.S. Ponce says, because it’s still seen as a better opportunity than any job available to them in their community. Yet Ponce understands why many other migrant women work undocumented. Despite the enormous risks—including sexual violence on the migrant trail, and fraud and wage theft by employers—they are at least not legally indentured to a single employer or forced to return home after a set time.
Speaking through an interpreter during her visit to D.C., Ponce tells Working In These Times that for immigrant mothers, especially parents, the emotional pain of familial separation can rival economic hardships. “Women are the core of the family… In many Mexican homes, mother is also [taking the role of] the father of those children. [Migrant women] experience isolation of being far away from family, and on top of that they have to put up with the mistreatment that they suffer.” Ponce does not have children herself, but sends money home to support her sisters.
But the workers struggling within this system are finding ways to organize. Ponce now serves as an advocate with Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, which campaigns in both the U.S. and Mexico for immigration reform that would expand the rights of guestworkers in many low-wage industries.
The Senate immigration reform bill proposed earlier this year respoded to some of the demands of pro-migrant advocates by offering a complex scheme to allow some guestworkers and undocumented migrants an opportunity to obtain legal residency status, with the primary interest of sating labor market demand. That would give the growing population of guestworkers a pathway to settle here with their families.
At the same time, lawmakers proposed major cuts to family reunification visas, curtailing one of the few channels of legal migration outside of the guestworker system—crossing over through the sponsorship of family members already permanently settled in the U.S. The Senate would scrap reunification visas for siblings and institute a new, streamlined visa system that would score an immigrant’s eligibility based on various criteria, such as educational attainment.
That’s too long to wait for the mothers, sisters and daughters who have for years toiled in the U.S. for their families, yet no longer know what their children look like. There’s no provision in the reform bill that resolves the pain of that longing. There are only voices like Ponce’s, which have no grand legislative solutions—just an appeal for dignity in return for all they’ve given up.
About the Author: Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times, a contributor to Working In These Times, and an editor at CultureStrike. She is also a co-producer of Asia Pacific Forum on Pacifica’s WBAI. Her work has appeared on Alternet, Colorlines.com, Ms., and The Nation, Newsday, and her old zine, cain.
There aren’t many jobs in the United States that are tougher than farmwork-—picking crops under a sweltering sun, earning just enough to survive, jumping from one unstable seasonal job to another. But the job is especially unbearable if you have to work yourself to exhaustion all day under the watch of the man who raped you.
The report, based on dozens of interviews with survivors and advocates, outlines the multiple barriers to justice that women face-—not just institutional sexism but also crippling poverty and discrimination in law enforcement. Women may feel they have little choice but to suffer humiliating treatment and abuse in order to support their families. The consequences of reporting sexual violence can be devastating for the whole household, because the boss might fire both the victim and the family members who work alongside her.
Women make up a sizable minority in a male-dominated agricultural workforce. The economic oppression that afflicts the farmworker population generally is exacerbated by a climate of gender oppression, in which women are viewed as sexual objects, and victims of abuse may face devastating social stigma even from their own community. Single women, indigenous, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender workers are especially at risk, according to HRW researchers.
The testimonial of Angela G. describes how her abuse was enforced by layers of silence and impunity ingrained in the workplace culture:
In her experience, women in general were not valued by the supervisors and the foremen, but Angela reported that because she did not have a partner, she was singled out for abuse. “I was called a dyke; they said I was a lesbian…. [The supervisor] and the foreman would laugh.” She was afraid to say anything because others who had complained of sexual harassment had been fired immediately. But to listen in silence day after day caused her a great deal of pain…
Angela stayed on, however, because she wanted to get promoted, earn a higher salary, and be better able to support her family. And then one day, a supervisor asked her to come over to his house to pick up some boxes. Angela reported that after she entered the house, he raped her.
Angela said she felt powerless: “For me, it felt like an eternity. I wanted to scream but I couldn’t. Afterward, he said I should remember that it’s because of him that I have this job, and if I say anything, I’ll lose my job…. I was afraid to call the police, to do anything. I didn’t know what to do. My mind was completely blocked off.”
No one knows how often this scene is repeated every day on the vast industrial farms that have drawn hundreds of thousands of migrants. But since the migrant farm workforce is the product of federal labor, food and immigration policies, the government is at least complicit in, if not at the crux of, this system of exploitation.
Although the law should theoretically protect all women from such abuse, immigrant workers are deterred from reporting work-related sexual violence because the law tends to criminalize them rather than treat them as survivors deserving of justice. As federal and state authorities have focused on arresting and deporting the undocumented, immigrant communities have every reason to see police as a source of terror, not protection.
Although special immigration relief known as the U-Visa is available to victims of crime, advocates are concerned that the qualifications for the visa are too stringent for people who are dealing with trauma and economic hardship. Access to counseling and other services is also severely constrained by language and culture barriers that make it hard for social agencies to build trust with underserved communities.
At the same time, sexual victimization is part of a continuum of exploitation, and as long as farmworkers, whether they’re here legally or not, are excluded from equal labor and civil rights, suffering in all forms will remain an intrinsic part of the agricultural system. Grace Meng, a researcher in Human Rights Watch’s U.S. Program who authored the report, said that while farmworkers face unique threats on the job, “a lot of the factors that make them vulnerable are true of unauthorized immigrant workers in a lot of industries.” Although special remedies like the U-Visa might help address individual violations, she said, “We think that the most practical and effective way to deal with the vulnerability of these workers and this population to crime and other abuses is to enact comprehensive immigration reform.”
It should be no surprise that on America’s farms, so many women are treated as less than human, since not even the government sees them as worthy of respect under the law.
This blog originally appeared in In These Timeson May 28, 2012. Reprinted with permission.
About the author: Michelle Chen’s work has appeared in AirAmerica, Extra!, Colorlines and Alternet, along with her self-published zine, cain. She is a regular contributor to In These Times’ workers’ rights blog, Working In These Times, and is a member of the In These Times Board of Editors. She also blogs at Colorlines.com. She can be reached at michellechen @ inthesetimes.com.
Over the past several weeks, the images emerging from the Middle East and North Africa have shocked and awed Western audiences, who had never seen, or bothered to notice, the massive potential of people power to challenge the rule of ossified dictators.
But the protest movements across the region have also shed light on less glorious struggles that pervade stratified Arab societies. If the young protesters represent the rise of civil society forces, the imported migrant laborers caught in the crossfire reflect the often-hidden economic and ethnic dimensions to the region’s power struggles.
On the besieged borders of Libya and in the ghettoized neighborhoods of Bahrain, migrants have found themselves in the peculiar position of being refugees from countries that were always alien to them. As the fighting escalated in Libya last week, the aid organization BRAC reported on migrants desperate to flee the country:
Nearly 70,000 Bangladeshi nationals were residing in Libya as migrant workers when violence erupted last month. As the conflict intensified, thousands fled to neighboring countries, where they face congested borders and overcrowded refugee camps and airports. Thus far, only 20,000 migrants have been able to return to Bangladesh – most of them heavily in debt and with no ready means of earning a living.
After leaving his workplace in the western Libyan town of Zawiyah, 28 year-old Bangladeshi migrant steelworker Mohammed Nienn joined mounting crowds at the Tunisian border at a displaced persons camp known as Choucha. Having languished for over a week in hopes of catching a flight out, he told the UN news service:
”My family tells me to get home as quickly as possible… But it’s not as simple as that. There are so many Bangladeshis here. The wait to go to the airport is quite long.”
Mohamed, a Somali from Mogadishu, spoke to the constant state of dispossession that follows refugees who go from one warzone to the next:
Every day I watch people board buses to the airport….But I’m not envious; their situation is just very different to mine. Even if I was offered the chance to go back to Somalia, I wouldn’t want to anyway. I’m just waiting to find out where I will end up.
Thousands of Bangladeshi migrant workers who recently crossed into Tunisia from Libya walk to a United Nations displacement camp March 04, 2011 in Ras Jdir, Tunisia. Tens of thousands of guest workers from Egypt, Tunisia, Bangladesh and other countries are fleeing to the border of Tunisia to escape the violence. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
International authorities counted some 17,000 refugees at Choucha, “10,000 from Bangladesh and the remaining 7,000 mostly from sub-Saharan African countries.” Repatriation efforts have varied widely, with some countries coordinating efforts to bring nationals home, while others have no home to return to—as in the case of Somalis and Palestinians who settled in Libya when it was relatively safe.
The plight of migrants is just one facet of the humanitarian crisis, but they embody the challenges to advancing a revolution in the face of social polarization and cultural dissonance. Even within Choucha, Bangladeshi and African refugees began to self-segregate as different groups struggled to make the most of tight supplies and food rations.
In Bahrain, where protests have been viciously crushed by government and Saudi forces, the country’s oil wealth is filtered along sectarian and class lines.. At the base of the stratified social structure are Bangladeshi immigrants, working in low-wage sectors like construction. According to Mother Jones, the tiny country is tightly parceled: “Sunni Muslims, westerners, Shiite Muslims, and South Asian migrant workers (who are not citizens but constitute almost half of Bahrain’s population) generally live in separate neighborhoods.”
For all the promise of democratic change washing over many Arab countries, many underlying social rifts have ruptured–a telling reminder that even a rebellion from the “right side of history” can betray regressive views that often stew under the grip of dictatorship.
Black Africans in Libya (as opposed to ethnic Arabs), who have long suffered unequal treatment as migrants, have reportedly been brutally targeted on the suspicion that they are foreign mercenaries hired by Gaddafi to suppress protests.
Black Agenda Report commentator Glen Ford rounded up reports on racial violence in Libya, and drew a sobering reflection on the emergent “Arab re-awakening”:
In the turmoil, what is also re-awakened – or never really dormant – is a “problematic” form of anti-black racism that appears, at least in some parts of the North African Maghreb, endemic and woven into the fabric of Arab nationalism.
The (re)emergence of Arab nationalism nevertheless represents a catastrophe for U.S. imperialism, which abhors all nationalisms except its own as it seeks to bend every national aspiration to the will of capital and its war machinery. However, the racism that is clearly manifest in Libya’s current dynamic is also a huge impediment to pan-African solidarity, inviting new waves of imperial mischief on the continent. On that score, we should have no illusions.
In reality, the migrants who take the dirtiest jobs in these oil-rich nations have a lot in common with the revolutionaries risking everything for emancipation. As Mohamed the Somali refugee said, they’re all waiting to find out where they will end up. A parallel form of dislocation stirred native-born Bahrainis and Libyans to rise up and reclaim their country from tyranny.
The rebellions don’t merely call for regime change or constitutional reform; people seek the sovereignty and dignity that have long been denied to them. Though frequently ignored in nationalist political clashes, migrants share in this struggle too, whether or not they see themselves as part of the civil conflict. They’re pitted against the dictatorship of global capital that subsumed their repressive host countries. Both migrants and citizens alike have endured wholesale disenfranchisement—the disempowerment that was first expressed by the defining act of protest that touched off the “Arab spring”: the self-annihilation of a desperate young worker in Tunis.
Some migrants are raising their voices as stakeholders in political conflicts as well. A group of Filipino migrant workers with the advocacy group Migrante-Middle Eas has denounced the air-strikes on Libya as “done in bad faith just to pursue their own self-serving geopolitical and economic agenda in Libya and the entire Middle East and North African region.”
Refugees from America’s former colony should know: this latest tide of displacement is just more proof that in an age of fluid borders and global capital, real revolution is anchored in the dignity of all workers, wherever they’ve come from, and wherever they’re going.
About the Author: Michelle Chen‘s work has appeared in AirAmerica, Extra!, Colorlines and Alternet, along with her self-published zine, cain. She is a regular contributor to In These Times’ workers’ rights blog, Working In These Times, and is a member of the In These Times Board of Editors. She also blogs at Colorlines.com. She can be reached at michellechen @ inthesetimes.com.
This blog originally appeared In These Times on March 21, 2011. Reprinted with Permission.
On March 15th, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R) signed off on a bundle of four immigration bills which includes proposals that were specifically introduced as proactive alternatives to Arizona’s harsh immigration law. One of the measures would allow undocumented immigrants who meet certain requirements to carry a state-issued guest worker permit. A separate bill would create a migrant worker partnership with Mexico. Another piece of approved legislation will allow Utahns to sponsor migrants wanting to work or study in the state.
GOP delegate coordinators have dedicated a significant amount of time and resources to pushing back against the proposal with robo-calls and a petition. “As GOP delegates, we support the governor and everything he’s done up until now,” said Brandon Beckham, a Utah County GOP delegate who opposes guest worker and sponsorship proposals. “If he signs this bill, I don’t think he’s going to muster enough delegate support to make it past convention.” On the other side of the spectrum, some labor advocates worry that the guest worker permits will “give employers cheap labor without providing additional protections for workers or a path to citizenship.” “It gives illegal immigrants false hope because it makes them think they could become legal,” Ana Avendano of the AFL-CIO said. “But they’re still illegal, and could be deported.”
Meanwhile, several Latinos in Utah have been organizing against the other bill that Herbert signed into law today — HB-497. The legislation is a “watered down” version of Arizona SB-1070 that gives Utah police officers the authority to investigate a person’s immigration status if they’re suspected of felony or misdemeanor crimes.
Litigation has been threatened by both sides — immigration restrictionists who argue that the guestworker and sponsorship bills violate federal law and immigration advocates who say that the enforcement-only bill is unconstitutional. While it’s pretty monumental that such a conservative state has enacted a set of proposals that aren’t just aimed at making life completely miserable for undocumented immigrants, both sides of the debate are going to have a tough time arguing that the bill they oppose is preempted by federal law while maintaining that the one that they support is not.
Yet, maybe that’s the whole point. Utah Senate President Michael Waddoups (R) told the Salt Lake Tribune that the signing of the bills is “putting the federal government on notice.” “They’ve been on the sidelines way too long,” Herbert said. “They need to get in the game.” In fact, state officials are reportedly talking with the White House and congressional officials about using the “Utah Solution” as a model for comprehensive immigration reform at the federal level. The laws won’t go into effect for another two years. The U.S. Congress could spend that time to enact a legalization and a worker program that would render all of these state and local initiatives null.
About the Author: Andrea Nill is an immigration researcher/blogger for ThinkProgress.org and the Progress Report at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.
This blog originally appeared on Wonk Room on March 15, 2011. Reprinted with permission.
Immigration reform experts propose tying system to labor market, and creating govt.-run auction for temp workers…While also touting economic benefit of immigrants.
DALLAS, TEXAS—Do immigrant workers—specifically, undocumented workers—contribute value to the economy through their labor, taxes and Social Security contributions? Or are they a net drain on government services and a big depresser of wages?
As states consider anti-immigrant bills modeled on Arizona’s SB 1070, this question has been debated hotly by activists on both sides of the immigration reform debate and by economists and other academics. The need for federal immigration reform remains impossible to ignore.
At the Institute for Journalism and Justice’s “Immigration in the Heartland” conference in Dallas Thursday and Friday, experts tried to get beyond rhetoric and politics in ascertaining the concrete economic and fiscal impacts of immigrant workers on the U.S. economy. Among other things, they argued for a reformed immigration system that is strictly tailored to the current labor market, and a temporary worker system based on a government-run auction. They also stressed the importance of understanding the separate fiscal and economic impacts of immigration. The fiscal impact is the direct cost of services, while the economic impact includes the wide-ranging ripple effects of their roles as consumers and entrepreneurs.
Washington Post Writers Group pundit Ed Schumaker-Matos, a Cuban immigrant, cited World Bank, Social Security Administration and other figures while positing that immigrant workers mirror native-born workers in the fact that highly skilled and educated people contribute a net gain to the economy, while low-skilled immigrant workers cost more than they contribute on the fiscal level considering their use of social services, education and healthcare.
But he said the cost of low-skilled workers in using social services and in competing with native-born low-skilled workers must be considered in light of the fact that immigrants of all skill levels do much to grow the economy as a whole.
A migrant worker's teeth are inspected at a tobacco leaf farm on August 11, 2010, in Windsor, Conn. The University of Connecticut Migrant Farm Worker Clinics visit area farms to offer health screenings to migrant farm workers and their families. There are an estimated 3.5 million migrant and seasonal farm workers in the United States, and many of these workers lack access to health professionals due to language barriers and fears of deportation. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
And he said that as opposed to decades past where many native-born U.S. citizens were high school dropouts, today only a small fraction of the U.S. population qualifies as “unskilled” and hence in competition with unskilled immigrants for jobs. He noted that studies show immigrants are much more likely than native-born U.S. citizens to start businesses, and that their role as customers and the income they inject into the economy expands the economy and U.S. productivity as a whole.
And he noted that while low-skilled immigrant workers may be a financial drain on local or to a lesser extent state social services, as anti-immigrant critics often charge, their children are likely to obtain levels of education and skill that help compensate for their parents’ effect on the economy by contributing more in taxes than they cost the system.
Is it an investment in the future or a burden? You don’t say to the local white kids that they’re a burden – they are in fact – they cost more than they put in. But you think of it as an investment in the future.
He pointed out a similar double standard regarding the “stealing jobs” argument.
Just like with natural population growth, the more people you have the more the economy grows. But people don’t stop having children because they’re afraid they’ll steal jobs from their parents.
One silver lining is that these costs dissipate in the very long run as their descendants assimilate and “pay back” the costs imposed by their predecessors. Economic or educational assimilation is, therefore, a very important piece of the immigration calculation.
Shumaker-Matos added that a less-publicized part of the immigration debate involves (usually legal) high-skilled immigrants, especially in the sciences, who compete with highly educated citizens for those high-end jobs. He said that while high-skilled immigrants may drive down wages slightly in these jobs, the innovation and overall economic and technological growth they contribute expands overall economic efficiency and productivity.
Pia Orrenius—a senior economist with the Dallas Federal Reserve, co-author of the aforementioned report and former advisor on labor, health and immigration to the Bush administration—said that high-skilled immigrants are a boon to the U.S. economy while low-skilled immigrants are a drain, at least in the immediate sense.
In her recent book, Orrenius proposes an “employment-driven” immigration system that awards temporary work visas without a wait based on the immediate needs of the labor market; rather than the current legal immigration system that according to government figures awards 85 percent of green cards to family members and only 7 percent based on employment.
Orrenius said that the U.S. lags behind other developed countries including South Korea, her native Switzerland, Spain and Italy, which base their legal immigration system primarily on the needs of the labor market rather than family relationships and humanitarian concerns.
The Dallas Federal Reserve report said that:
Estimates from 1996—the most recent comprehensive estimates available—indicate that immigrants with less than a high school diploma cost $89,000 more than they contribute in taxes over their lifetimes, while immigrants with more than a high school education contribute $105,000 more in taxes than they use in public services.
In other words, low-skilled immigrants are a net fiscal drain, but overall, immigration need not be. High-skilled immigrants can offset the fiscal cost of low-skilled immigrants.
Orrenius, whose book was published by the pro-business, free market American Enterprise Institute, would like to see a system wherein the government would auction off permits for high-skilled, low-skilled and seasonal temporary workers, and employers willing to pay the most for the permits would legally hire workers. The permits would only be good for a year, with the number of visas constantly adjusted based on the labor market and economy.
She said that under her proposal, workers would be allowed to quit their jobs if they suffered exploitation or abuse of the type common under the U.S.’s current guest worker program. In that case workers would have to find a new employer who had also bought permits, Orrenius said, which she suggested would likely not be a problem in urban areas but could present problems in rural areas with fewer employers. She said immigrants could theoretically petition for green cards – with the numbers awarded also determined by the current labor market – after five or 10 years in the temporary worker program.
Though in theory this might protect immigrants from exploitation by employers, in reality such a system would likely be ripe for abuse, as many immigrants likely would be afraid of leaving their jobs for fear of endangering their visa. And employers unwilling or unable to pay for the permits would likely continue to employ undocumented workers.
Orrenius’ proposed system would allow reunification of spouses and minor children with no wait, but it would greatly reduce the number of other relatives of citizens or permanent residents – a move sure to be blasted by immigrants rights groups. She said:
With an employment-based system, legal immigration would act more like unauthorized immigration. It is demand-based, so it benefits native workers – you don’t want a lot of immigrants coming in when the labor market is doing poorly.
About the Author: Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist whose works has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her most recent book is Revolt on Goose Island. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This blog originally appeared in In These Times on March 11, 2011. Reprinted with Permission.
Many countries around the world, including the United States, depend on immigrant labor to boost economic development, but do not protect the rights of their immigrant workers. Trade union representatives at the Global Forum on Migration and Development (GMFD) meeting in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, last week called on the world’s governments to respect and protect the rights of migrant workers.
In a statement, the global unions said governments must be vigilant in fighting against racism and xenophobia, which are on the rise in several countries. They also urged countries to ratify the International Labor Organization (ILO) conventions on migrant workers, eliminate abusive guest worker programs and assure the rights of domestic workers.
Says Ambet Yuson, general secretary of the Geneva-based Building and Wood Workers International:
Migrant workers contribute to the economic and social development; however, they are consistently marginalized, exploited, and abused. It is the fundamental responsibility of all governments to protect the rights of migrant workers.
While each country has its own particular experiences with migration, several common themes emerged at the conference. For example, nearly all the union representatives told of efforts to defend domestic workers from human rights abuses. In June 2010, the ILO took a giant step forward in the struggle to create workplace justice for the millions of housekeepers, nannies and other domestic workers around the world, by beginning the process to establish a first-ever international standard (“convention”) to protect the rights of domestic workers. If the convention is passed at the ILO’s meeting in 2011, it would require governments that ratify it to ensure domestic workers are covered by the fundamental rights and principles of the ILO, which include the freedom to form unions, elimination of forced labor, abolition of child labor and the elimination of discrimination.
Migrant workers face horrific treatment ranging from rape to torture, Ana Avendaño, assistant to AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in an interview with Frontera Norte Sur, a publication of the Center for Latin American and Border Studies at New Mexico State University.
The AFL-CIO and its affiliated unions are working to protect migrant workers by helping them join unions and fighting for their rights under the law, Avendaño said. The AFL-CIO is actively supporting an international campaign to ratify the new convention on domestic workers.
“Domestic work is a particular kind of work, not just because it takes place in the household, but also because of its fundamental importance in the very fabric of society,” according to a statement by RESPECT, a European network of domestic worker groups and supporters.
Without provision for child care, care for the elderly, cooking and cleaning, society simply couldn’t function.
In the United States, New York State recently enacted a law that gives basic labor rights to domestic workers. Nationally, the AFL-CIO is supporting independent domestic worker efforts to form unions, Avendaño added, as well as a new initiative called the Excluded Workers Congress that brings together domestic workers, day laborers, taxi drivers, farmworkers, unemployable ex-felons, and other people at the margins of the economy.
About the Author: James Parks had his first encounter with unions at Gannett’s newspaper in Cincinnati when his colleagues in the newsroom tried to organize a unit of The Newspaper Guild. He is a journalist by trade, and worked for newspapers in five different states before joining the AFL-CIO staff in 1990. His proudest career moment, though, was when he served, along with other union members and staff, as an official observer for South Africa’s first multiracial elections. Author photo by Joe Kekeris