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Worker's Rights and Immigrant Communities

Chinatown, New York (Marionzetta/Flickr)

Chinatown, New York (Marionzetta/Flickr)

Muzaffar Chishti

Yes, thank you very much. I’m very glad to be here and especially glad to be on the panel after their first, the opening of the new building of Asia Society which we all waited with bated breath to see what this building would look like. I mean this is obviously a very sad time to be talking on a topic like this. Immigrant workers always have it very difficult in this country, in the city, in our communities but they obviously have never had it more difficult than after September 11th of this year. I thought what I would do is to provide a context for the importance of protecting workers’ rights and their communities in our nation, the conditions under which the workers have been living and the effects of enforcement of law on workers, both as human beings and as workers in the workplace. And then talk briefly about what has changed after 9-11.

First of all, all of us know that immigration is big, it’s big, and it has never been bigger; we call ourselves a nation of immigrants but we have truly never been more a nation of immigrants than we are today. We know by now, by the census of 2000, that about 11 million people came to United States to live here permanently in the last decade of the twentieth century. We would always say that 1990s is going to be the biggest decade of immigration in the United States, except for the first two decades of the twentieth century. We can no longer say that. The 1990s were the high watermark of immigration in the United States. The second most important fact about immigration is that 68% of the immigrants who come to live in the United States today, have come in the last twenty years. We have never had such concentration of immigrants in such short period of time. The third most important factor about immigration, from my point of view, is that immigrants today are settling not only in what we call the traditional immigration settlement communities in the metropolitan areas of the country but are increasingly settling in parts of the country where traditionally are not associated with immigration settlements. So, it has become much more of a national phenomenon than it used to be. And the last thing is that though Latino and Asian immigration continues to be the dominant sort of flow for immigration, immigrants from all parts of the world are now settling in the United States in very large numbers. This is true about immigration as a picture in general.

And now, what is the context about our labor market? About, as labor counts will tell you, about 10 to 12% of our labor force today is foreign born. But when we actually talk about people who enter the labor force for the first time, which we call "new entrants", it’s about 25% and in about next three to four years it’s going to go up to about 33%. So, immigrants as a component of the labor market is now much more pronounced than it ever has been. Where this phenomenon has been most dramatic is in the low wage sector of the labor market. First of all, our economists and politicians argue that, seven or eight years ago, the last time I lobbied the 1990 Act, which was the last major immigration act that Congress passed with respect to admissions of people. Business will tell Congress that all we need in United States are college-degree people, there is absolutely no need of people that have low wages and low skills. And Congress systematically passed legislation to encourage a high-skilled level of immigration to the United States. Guess what happened. The low-wage workers in the United States are here to stay and they are growing, and they are growing phenomenally in the last ten years. And in fact, they were the most prominently in the service sector of the economy. The service sector of the economy has grown about 50% in the last fifteen years. Since we talked about globalization, we all know that globalization and restructuring of the economy has a lot to do with the growth of the service sector. A good part of manufacturing has gone abroad and in place, in the U.S., what has grown is the service sector of the economy. And even though we grew, Wall Street for eight years in a row in New York City, sociologists like my friend, Saskia Sassen, constantly remind us that Wall Street yuppies need a lot of people to clean up after themselves. And that’s what the phenomenon we saw throughout the 80s and the 90s in New York City.

In New York City itself, wages, jobs that pay wages $25,000 or less per year have grown about 4 times than jobs that pay $25,000 to $75,000 a year. So, though we always think about the growth of Wall Street in New York, the real growth in the labor market in New York has taken place in the low-wage sector of our economy. While this is sort of generally known, what is not appreciated in economics literature is that the wages in the low-wage sector have gone down consistently in the last 25 years. In fact, wages in the service sector of the economy compared to, in real terms, when you factor in inflation, have been steadily declining in the United States since the late 1970s. Therefore, if you, it’s not - it’s not surprising therefore from this stark reality, that the only people who are interested in taking low wage jobs, especially in the service sector of the economy, are immigrant workers. And the numbers are beginning to tell the story. If you look at, what we call, the high immigration communities of the country, which means where immigrants constitute more than 10% of the population, the big metropolitan centers, labor economists will tell you, that about three-fourths of the workers in the low wage sector in those communities are foreign-born people.

Now, if you’re therefore a union -talk about unions for the time being, which is interested in organizing workers in the low-wage sectors of the economy, you have no choice but to organize immigrant workers in today’s economy. That’s why you'll see that one union after another, not only the union that I represent, but Service Employees International Union, the Hotel and Restaurant Workers Union, Food and Commercial Workers Union, and the Farm Workers Union have in the last 10 years, systematically been organizing immigrants at a very large scale.

Now while there’s excitement about organizing immigrants has absolutely been true, unions have confronted two major problems with respect to organizing immigrant workers. One is, no surprise, that a large number of these workers in the low-wage sector lack documentation. These are what we typically call "undocumented workers." Second, is that there is a strange law, enacted by Congress in 1986, called the Employers Sanctions Law, which is intended to punish employers for hiding undocumented workers. Actual practice of the last 15 years has showed us the law has done nothing to deter employers from hiding undocumented workers, it has done nothing to deter illegal immigration in the United States, but has actually been used very effectively by employers to depress the wages and working conditions of their workers.

And this is sort of typically how it happens. If a worker works at a place, the employer frequently knows that the worker does not have documentation. In fact, in my experience, the employer frequently refers you to a documentation-producing entity just around the corner say, "Come back with some documents so that I can hire you." But the same worker then, if he decides or she decides to assert their right before the Department of Labor for wage rights or joins the union or decides to arbitrate a grievance, the employer suddenly discovers the Employers Sanctions and God at the same time, and says, "Look, I can no longer be on the wrong side of law and God, and therefore, I must terminate your services." This also gets manifested itself when there is a letter received by the employer from the Social Security Administration that says, we have found no matches between your names and the social security numbers of all the workers, and the employer uses that letter to terminate people, especially if the workers are inconvenient for that particular employer.

So, we have seen obviously, the combination of lack of status of people and the punitive aspect of the Employer Sanctions law create havoc in the lives and rights of workers in the United States. That’s why trade union had a monumental break through last year, decided to ask Congress for a fundamental change in immigration policy. We’ve asked Congress to have, to enact a new law which would legalize undocumented workers in the United States - by all estimates there are about 6 to 8 million people - and we asked Congress to repeal the Employer Sanctions law. We’re beginning actually to make very strong progress in that. In fact, those of you follow the news of President Fox’s visits to the United States with President Bush, there was a strong agreement between Mexico and the United States for a new legalization program. And we thought this would actually even happen this year. September 11 obviously turned a lot of things upside down. The first, one of the first casualties of, in the immigration field, was that the legalization program, not only for Mexicans, but for all workers, is obviously off the table. So I think it’s, we will probably not see a legalization program at least until the year 2003.

But in the meantime, what has happened in the reality of these workers, the first obvious thing is that the same workers who had now constituted an extremely important part of this growing service sector of our economy were the first casualties of the 9/11 phenomenon. The first set of people who lost jobs in the country were people who we normally associate with the hospitality industry. Hotels lost their business, taxis lost their business, resorts lost their business, restaurants lost their business. So, the people who were obviously were working in those sets, subsets of the economy were the first to lose their jobs. Secondly by a strange coincidence, these are exactly the people who got victimized for hate crimes. And these are exactly the people who got victimized for racially biased enforcement of our immigration and criminal law. And the third, which is obviously beginning to take effect now, is that a large number of these people not only lost their jobs, but have lost health insurance. Because these were people whose entire health insurance were tied to their jobs.

So, if you don’t have health insurance in the United States, and you don’t have a job, your life becomes, obviously, very difficult to bear. Now, there are safety nets for this. That’s exactly what, in the situation like this, a safety net is built for. But again, by a sheer set of circumstances, this is exactly the group of people that are not eligible for a good number of the benefits of our safety net programs. So, the combination of the effect of unemployment, the effect of lack of their health status, and the non-eligibility to various benefits has made these people some of the most vulnerable members of our population today. It’s a challenge of the enormity that we in the immigrant-rights community have never confronted, and the only hope is that if the public benefits are not going to be available to these people and though we’re making some attempts to seek changes in laws and their benefits, that private charity and private programs will soon be in place to supplement the lack of public benefits that these people will not have access to. Thank you.