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Hidden with code "Submitted as Feature"
News :: Globalization : Human Rights : International : Labor
Living Wages: Immigrants and the State's Economy
17 May 2006
Modified: 01:25:54 PM
The men flock around the car with hope and apprehension: they weigh their distance, eager but cautious, drift in through the crowd of friends and contenders in hopes to find a job. This time the car deceives them, hums and rattles, but leaves with as many passengers as it arrived. With hunched shoulders setting a front against the cold that sneaks through the cracks, the men disperse and resume talking about life, about soccer, anything that will keep their minds off the accumulated stack of bills and debt. These are but a few of the undocumented immigrant workers who stand around our street corners, looking for work.
In less than 15 years, the number of immigrants living in Massachusetts has increased by nearly 40 percent. Over the past 12 years, the growth in labor force in the state has depended for the most part on international immigration. Massachusetts has lost significantly more skilled workers to other states than it has attracted, leaving the state with a deficit of 213,000 domestic migrants, according to a study conducted by the Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth (MassINC). In fact, it is estimated that in 2004, Massachusetts was the only state in the country to shrink in size. MassINC researchers claim that the state's future economic health will be increasingly dependent on how we deal with the challenges and incentives posed by the influx of migrant workers. "Immigrant workers have become indispensable to the Massachusetts economy," wrote Andrew Sum, author of MassINC's report The Changing Face of Massachusetts and Director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University, "But at the same time that the education and skills required for success are increasing, large numbers of immigrants lack a high school diploma and have limited English-speaking skills."

Elias Lacuna has a high school degree and two years of college education, but he has been unable to obtain a green card since he came to the U.S. ten years ago from Minas Gerais, Brazil. He came with a work visa and was planning to stay only for a couple of years but met his wife, another Brazilian, and had a daughter. A few years later his marriage fell apart and since then, he tries to make ends meet with his daughter's alimony in mind. "During the winter months I'm lucky to find one or two days of work per week," said Elias, "So during the summers I try to work at least 60 hours per week. It's really not worth working for less than that." Most of the jornaleros, or immigrant daily workers, complained about how inflation in this country has affected them in the past years. In Brazil, they were used to seeing a gradual devaluation of the currency and an increase in consumer prices. Not in the US. "Before I could live on $60 per week, now it's about $200-300," said Mauro, an immigrant who preferred his last name not mentioned for fear of deportation, "The immigrants who are living in the US are dying."

According to the Boston Indicators Project, consumer prices in Metro Boston rose faster every year between 1997 and 2003 than the metropolitan average, making Greater Boston one of the most expensive regions in the nation and making it difficult for many households to make ends meet. One-quarter of Massachusetts residents polled by MassINC said that personal finances and the high cost of living were dominant concerns for people considering moving out of state. Unlike legal residents, however, most undocumented immigrants have small protection from the law and face daily exploitation. A third of the men on this particular street corner have been cheated out of their pay one time or another. Ricardo, a 24-year-old jornalero, arrived in Massachusetts a year and seven months ago. He owes his coyote (immigrant smugglers) $10,000 (delete: thousand dollars) and most of what he makes goes to pay this debt. In July of 2005, he and another nine immigrants (delete: like himself - don't know exactly how alike) were contracted by Paco's Carpentry in Buzzards Bay, Mass., where they were hired to work for 45-50 hours per week for $500 a month. That is, $2.50 an hour. At the end of two months Ricardo's check for $1,000, which he still holds in his pocket, bounced. So did the checks of the other undocumented workers. Paco's Carpentry was unavailable for comment.

At the Brazilian Immigrant Center, workers rights coordinator Emanuel Souza said he sees 5-7 cases like these per week. He runs a weekly workshop where he teaches immigrants about basic workers rights such as: minimum wage, overtime pay, workers' injury compensation, and health and safety in the workplace environment. The cases Souza deals with range in average from $200 to $5,000 for worked hours owed by an employer, but he has had cases for as much as $40,000. The Office of the Attorney General accepts complaint forms from workers, regardless of their legal status in this country, but is often unable to penalize violators from a lack of documentation. Souza always encourages workers to get as much as information from the employer, phone, address, and all hours worked written on a paper, to protect themselves.

Some immigrant workers have even taken their cases to a small claims court, but for the larger amounts of money owed, the cases usually go unresolved. "What happens is that the employer will give them very little, like $200, to keep them at bay," said Souza, "The guys believe it, 'Oh, in a few weeks I'll have $6,000,' but they never get paid. I tell them that if it continues just quit, get another job. But it's even worse for them to be without a job."

"The employers will go after the most vulnerable group of workers," said Suren Moodliar, Coordinator at the North American Alliance for Fair Employment (NAFFE), "If the government does its job around enforcing wage and hour laws, and enforcing health and safety laws, then immigrants and native born workers would be on the same playing field, and there wouldn't be any kind of incentive on the part of potential employers to hire this special cast of exploitable workers.”

One of NAFFE’s goals is to promote global standards for workers rights to ensure that states have the ability to fit their laws with respect to investment as well as labor and environmental standards, without interference from organizations like the World Bank, the IMF, and WTO. “We think that corporate globalization has lowered living standards by promoting a race to the bottom,” said Moodliar, “And under the current rules and regulations that organizations like the World Trade Organization (WTO) have promoted, the governments have been incapable in their ability to promote jobs for their citizens.”

An auto school instructor in Brazil, Lacuna was making $3 an hour and working an average of 75 hours a week. He thinks his current standard of living is about the same as when he left Brazil. From hearing his hardship and experiences in the U.S., all of his seven brothers and sisters abandoned the idea of migrating to this country. "My parents and a brother came once on vacation, but that's about it," he said.

The men take a break from the cold when a fellow jornalero arrives with a small cart containing homemade hot soup, at $1 per bowl. The others playfully tease and mock him but are thankful for the boost of warmth. They are glad, too, for the soup-maker's ingenuity. It offers him some kind of daily income, however low.

This work is in the public domain