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L.A.'s Economy Depends on 'Illegals' : Industries That Lose Low-Wage Workers Will Go Abroad

November 23, 1986|RICHARD ROTHSTEIN | Richard Rothstein is manager of the California Joint Board of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union.

The amnesty provisions of the new immigration law are generous. But its employer sanctions reflect anti-immigrant scapegoating and are a misguided attack on our Southern California industrial base.

If the law only punished immigrants who were a drain on our economy--those on welfare, using taxpayer-provided social services--it would be mean-spirited, but at least rational. But the target of the Simpson-Rodino bill is immigrants with jobs: it seeks to punish employers of taxpaying immigrants who personify an American ethos of hard work to build a better life.

The bill's defenders claim that illegal immigrants compete for jobs with citizens. This is largely untrue. "Illegals" work in hotel, restaurant and manufacturing jobs that do not provide wages high enough to attract lawful residents. If American workers were truly being displaced by illegals, immigrant-flooded Southern California would have a higher unemployment rate than elsewhere. Yet 1985 average unemployment figures were 7% for Los Angeles, compared with 7.2% nationally.

Labor-intensive jobs have always been the jobs of entry for immigrants. The Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union has never spoken to our members solely in English. Today, we publish material in Italian, Yiddish, Chinese, Portuguese, French and Spanish.

Eighty years ago, my grandparents, part of a wave of Eastern European peasants, found work in New York's garment industry. They did not displace natives; then, as now, sweatshop conditions did not attract Americans. That generation worked hard, both at their jobs and at improving the conditions of those jobs. They joined unions to improve wages and security, and to make humane workplace practices a matter of law. New generations of new immigrants succeeded them, and today New York garment shops employ Asians and Caribbeans, many of them "illegal." In Southern California, relatively newer industry depends on Mexican, Latin American, Korean and Philippine workers for its growth.

In the Los Angeles area, immigrants are employed in hundreds of thousands of jobs at or below the minimum wage of $3.35 an hour. When immigrant workers organize unions, they may initially win $5 to $6 an hour on piece rate, with paid holidays, vacations, seniority rights and health insurance. But even these standards are too low to attract American workers. At our Hill Street union hall, we maintain a referral service for garment and shoe employers. We have few citizens to refer.

Will prohibiting the employment of undocumented workers force industry to increase wages to attract Americans? Not in today's international economy. Immigrant-employing enterprises are in intense competition with imports from Third World economies. Industrial union contracts in Los Angeles, providing benefit levels far in excess of non-union standards, are still restrained not only by management's available resources but also by competition with much lower wage rates in Singapore, Sri Lanka and Brazil. In the last decade, 300,000 American apparel manufacturing jobs have been lost to low-wage imports. Prohibiting employment of immigrants, the only workers willing to labor in minimum or near-minimum wage garment jobs, will only accelerate the destruction of domestic industry.

Fortunately, the new immigration law is more smoke than fire; it exempts from sanctions the continued employment of millions of illegals hired before the law's enactment. For new hires, employers have a right to rely on what the applicant presents as documentation that he or she is lawfully in the United States. Employers are not required to establish the veracity of these easily obtainable papers.

The $800 million in increased funding that Simpson-Rodino provides for the Immigration and Naturalization Service would be more effective if it were allocated for enforcing minimum-wage laws. Firms that cannot compete by paying the minimum wage would be eliminated, and the number of undocumented would surely be reduced. (The secretary of labor recently announced regulations to reintroduce homework in the apparel industry. That is inconsistent with a desire to reduce illegal immigration.)

On a wider scale, the intent of the Simpson-Rodino bill is thwarted by other government policies.

If we were not fomenting and financing their civil wars, Central Americans would not be fleeing here by the tens of thousands; in many local manufacturing plants, Salvadorans now outnumber Mexicans.

If we didn't cling to the myth that we have an economy and labor market independent of Mexico, we would see the need for building a job market where most Mexicans would prefer to have it: on their side of the border. We should take greater responsibility for providing those jobs, whether by increasing the price we pay for Mexican oil, creating tax incentives for U.S. investment in Mexico or other policies.

And if we expanded legal immigration quotas to include low-skilled or unskilled people as well as professionals and entrepreneurs, our assembly-line factories, hotels and restaurants wouldn't have to hire undocumented Latin American, Asian and Caribbean workers.

What draws these people today is the same thing that drew earlier generations: opportunity, political or economic. As long as we have jobs here begging for their labor, with no Americans to take them, immigrants will keep coming.

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