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Dirty Jobs Don't Have to Be Lousy Jobs

A Commentary By Froma Harrop

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

"Why Americans Won't Do Dirty Jobs" is the presumptuous headline on a Bloomberg Businessweek cover. The subject is Alabama's new no-tolerance policy toward illegal immigrants and the people who hire them.

As expected, the law has caused an exodus of undocumented workers from Alabama, depriving fish-processors, farmers and other businesses of hands willing to perform killer work at minimum wage. As expected, the employers are complaining that Americans won't do dirty jobs.

The politics of this are all mixed up. A modern liberal might say: "See? American business needs undocumented workers. Serves you xenophobes right." An old-fashioned liberal might respond, "Serves you right for paying folks only $7.25 an hour to stand and cut catfish for 10 hours."

Some conservatives would complain, "While businesses profit off illegal immigration, its social costs get dropped on us taxpayers." Other conservatives would agree with modern liberals, but avoid the truth that their agenda is not diversity but cheap labor.

This is a complex matter, and to portray the Alabama law as being all about prejudice against brown-skinned foreigners is unfair. What usually goes unsaid is that tolerating illegal labor forces also has racist consequences. It depresses pay and working conditioning for low-skilled African-Americans, who then get accused of laziness for refusing backbreaking work at basement-scraping wages.

Worse, it has put certain jobs off-limits altogether to the native-born and established immigrants -- virtually closing many fields and factories to a conventional workforce.

"Some employers have begun to reorganize work in ways that systematically exclude certain native-born workers, especially those under the age of 35," according to a study at Northeastern University's Center for Labor Market Studies (the authors are Andrew Sum, Paul Harrington and Ishwar Khatiwada). The pay and conditions often don't meet basic labor standards. The jobs are frequently off the books, and the work paid in cash.

Alabama officials say shutting down this parallel labor market is an objective of the law. "I don't consider this a labor shortage," Tom Surtees, Alabama's director of industrial relations, told Businessweek. He went on: "We're transitioning from a business model. Whether an employer in agriculture used migrant workers, or whether it's another industry that used illegal immigrants, they had a business model, and that business model is going to have to change."

Here's an example of said business model: A Guatemalan field hand told Businessweek that migrants like him made about $60 for 11 hours of nonstop toil under the hot Alabama sun. Treating the tomato pickers as beasts of burden, the farm pays by the 25-pound basket, rather than by the hour. Surely that work can be done in shorter shifts and paid on a per-hour basis. As Surtees notes, Alabamians are happy to do brute work in sweltering steel mills because they are offered decent wages and benefits.

Where the Alabama law goes wrong is in assuming that it can change the business model at the state level. Catfish processors in Alabama have to compete with catfish processors in Mississippi and Arkansas, who don't have such tough restrictions on using lower-cost illegal labor.

The Alabama employers will add, "And what about China?" Low-wage countries have invaded the U.S. catfish market. They, too, have a point.

But go through the aisles of Walmart. The coffeemakers, sweatshirts and bicycles -- all once part of mighty American industries -- are also made in China. What makes catfish special?

A healthy U.S. labor market clearly has many moving parts, of which immigration will remain one. But replacing low-skilled domestic workers with illegal ones is insane labor policy.

And "Why Americans Won't Do Dirty Jobs" is a pretend answer to a phony question.

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