Immigration Law -- Bringing Back Sweatshop Conditions

There is an immigration crisis in the U.S. But it is not one caused by uncontrolled borders or too many immigrants, the stereotyped images used to inflame anti-immigrant hysteria. It is a sweatshop crisis--the return to exploitative conditions in the workplace reminiscent of a century ago. And the enforcement of U.S. immigration law has become a key weapon in the proliferation of those conditions, undermining the ability of immigrant workers to fight for better pay and treatment, and the effectiveness of unions which try to help them.

The slide backwards got a big push with the passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which enacted sanctions against employers who hired undocumented workers. The law formalized the creation of a special category of residents who have significantly fewer rights than the population as a whole--who cannot legally work or receive social benefits.

The 1986 law has had a strong economic impact--decreasing the wages of undocumented labor and increasing profit rates in industries dependent on it.

Undocumented workers are a permanent part of the U.S. population, and have been for decades. Their numbers have been relatively stable at about one percent of the total population.

The National Immigration Forum calculates that undocumented immigrants pay about $7 billion annually in taxes, subsidizing funds like Social Security and unemployment insurance from which they cannot collect benefits.

A UCLA study found that undocumented workers contribute approximately seven percent of California's $900 billion gross economic product, or $63 billion. The contribution by each of the state's 1.4 million undocumented immigrants is therefore about $45,000, counting even children, the unemployed, and those too old or ill to work.

Almost all undocumented workers receive wages near, and sometimes below, the legal minimum, which at $5.75 per hour equals an annual income of $11,960.

EXTRA PROFIT

So the labor of undocumented workers pumps tens of billions of dollars into the state's economy, but the workers themselves receive only a small percentage of it. That difference is a source of extra profit for industries dependent on undocumented workers--agriculture and food processing, land development (including the residential construction and building services industries), tourism (including the hotel and restaurant industries), garment production and light manufacturing, transportation, retail trade, health care, and domestic services.

When the undocumented workforce is made more vulnerable by immigration legislation, it also becomes cheaper for employers.

Nevertheless, undocumented workers have not been passive victims of exploitation. Over the last decade, they have been the backbone of many strikes and organizing drives. Employers have used their vulnerability, however, to try to stop growing support for unions.

"Portrait of Injustice," a report issued in October on the impact of immigration raids by the National INS Raids Task Force of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, details a number of cases in which immigration enforcement has been used to deny immigrants their workplace rights.

In just one of many examples, during the current joint organizing drive by the Teamsters Union and the United Farm Workers in Washington state's apple industry, the Stemilt Fruit Company told workers that union support would bring on raids. According to one employee, Mary Mendez, Stemilt's anti-union consultant told workers that "there hasn't been a union here yet, and the INS hasn't done any raids. But with a union, the INS is going to be around."

Using those threats, the company was able to defeat the Teamsters in a representation election. Afterwards, however, the NLRB issued a bargaining order because of Stemilt's illegal actions.

THE 'I-9' PROCESS

Under the 1986 immigration law, employers are required to request documents from workers to verify their legal right to reside in the U.S., and to record those documents on "I-9" forms. Since the law passed in 1986, many employers have used this process as a way of firing pro-union workers.

In 1990, Shine Building Maintenance in Silicon Valley was facing an organizing drive by its immigrant janitors. The company told its workers they had to provide new documentation verifying their legal status. When workers couldn't produce it, they were terminated. The I-9 check provided a way to eliminate a pro-union workforce, without violating NLRB prohibitions against terminations for union activity.

In San Leandro in 1997, Mediacopy, a video reproduction company, threatened to verify workers' immigration status as a means to terrorize them before a union election. The threat was credible since 99 people had been deported after an INS raid the previous year.

Many workers simply disappeared. Those who remained were convinced that another raid was imminent. The union lost the election, and the NLRB again sought a bargaining order to compensate for the extensive illegalities.

The ability of an employer to inform on its own workforce and use the INS to remove pro-union workers received legal reinforcement last year in New York State.

In 1992, workers at STC Knitting in Long Island City began an organizing drive with the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union (now UNITE). Just before the election, the company's attorney told the INS that undocumented workers were employed in the sweatshop. The INS checked the employer's I-9 form and arrested ten workers, including Gloria Montero, an active member of the union committee. Montero appealed the way the employer had used immigration enforcement to remove union supporters, but a federal court ruled that the action was legal.

Even in the absence of direct union organizing, the pressure of immigration raids keeps wages low among some of the most vulnerable sections of the workforce. In the San Francisco Bay Area, such raids have focused on fast food workers, car wash workers, and day laborers seeking jobs on the street corner. Enforcing low wages among these workers undermines wages generally in the service, fast food, and construction industries.

The INS has great latitude in the selection of enforcement targets. In Georgia last spring, the agency began raids in onion fields outside Vidalia. After growers protested that the raids were interfering with their operations, the local INS district director agreed to suspend action until the onion crop had been harvested.

LABOR DEPARTMENT

The Department of Labor has also become involved in the I-9 process, to the detriment of fair labor standards. In 1992, the DoL agreed that its inspectors would verify I-9 forms when they are called in by workers over unpaid overtime and other wage and hour violations.

In Los Angeles the INS initiated a series of raids in garment sweatshops, called Operation Buttonhole, in response to information from DoL inspectors. In a raid at P.K. Fashions, garment worker Miguel Angel Garcia Serrano was so frightened that he jumped out of an eighth-story window.

"Workers in the garment industry won't complain about workplace violations if it gets out that the DoL and the INS are working together," says UNITE organizer Cristina Vasquez. "Manufacturers and contractors will use it to scare and threaten workers."

At Launderall, a Staten Island laundry plant, employees earning $300 for a 72-80 hour week called in DoL inspectors this fall. After workers made a claim for $159,000 in back wages, the INS conducted a raid.

In September, the Yale Law School Workers Rights Project and the American Civil Liberties Union filed charges under NAFTA's labor side agreement against the DoL/INS agreement. "If no one can complain about slave wages, sweatshop owners have a green light to ignore minimum wage and overtime laws" said Shayne Stevenson, student director of the Yale group.

In fact, a Department of Labor survey released this summer shows that less than 40 percent of the licensed garment factories in Southern California are in compliance with labor and employment laws.

When it becomes harder and riskier for workers to make demands for social services, or to assert their rights at work or in the community, the price of their labor drops. According to UCLA professor Goetz Wolff, in women's apparel in Los Angeles, the average hourly wage fell from $6.37 to $5.62 between 1988 and 1993. Some 120,000 people work in LA's garment sweatshops, almost all immigrants, mostly undocumented.

LABOR'S BACKBONE

Despite these obstacles, immigrant workers, including the undocumented, have been the backbone of labor's resurgence in California in a multitude of strikes and organizing drives. Often, those union efforts have involved unique tactics to deal with the problem of immigration status.

In the year-long strike by southern California drywallers in 1992, mostly-Mexican immigrants were able to stop all home construction from the Mexican border north to Santa Barbara. They defied the police and the Border Patrol, blockading freeways when their car caravans were rousted as they traveled to construction sites.

According to veteran union organizer Joel Ochoa, "The immigrant community is looking for ties with labor. People are coming here from Mexico and all over Latin America with a tradition and culture that gives them a rich repertoire of tactics for fighting the companies."

Many California unions have realized that they will grow, and become more effective, as immigrant workers organize and contribute their traditions to the broader labor movement. Increasingly they are calling for an end to the use of immigration law as a weapon of employers. The SEIU, UNITE, the UE, and the California Labor Federation are all calling for the repeal of the employer sanctions in the 1986 law.

Speaking before the Asian-Pacific American Labor Alliance in San Francisco last year, AFL-CIO Secretary Treasurer Richard Trumka told delegates, "We are all agitators--we are all illegals. No matter how many years we've been here, in the eyes of the bankers of Wall Street we're all immigrants from Europe or Central America or Mexico, on our knees, digging in the dirt."

David Bacon is a former union organizer who now works as a freelance journalist and photographer.