Monday, February 11, 2008

AZ's Guestworker Program: Questions for our Lawmakers

If you believe that employers are utilizing foreign workers (Mexicans, predominantly) to undercut the wage that they would be forced to pay to US citizens if there were no alternative labor source, then you will have questions about SB1482, a guestworker bill pending in the AZ Senate and endorsed by Democratic Governor, Janet Napolitano.

Some background considerations: Because this bill raises many of the same questions raised by a new Department of Labor proposed guestworker rule, it's relevant to note that under a Friedmanian/GOP "free market" approach, there would be no guestworker program. The domestic marketplace would determine the wage, and if an Arizona cotton farmer couldn't find cotton pickers for $5/hour, then he might have to pay, oh, I don't know, $25/hr. (Amounts are purely hypothetical, understand.)

But we know, or should, that the "free market" as conceived by Republicans does not include letting the market determine wages. It is weighted to the needs of "bidness," not to the living needs of the people.

That said, we also know that Americans are not likely to receive the inevitable cost passthrough of $25/hr for cotton pickers. I guess that would make a $75 Izod polo shirt cost, what, $200? Just guessing, have no clue. I get my polo shirts for $15 from Mervyns, and I think anybody who doesn't is a moron.

Listen up: You and I, every day, either benefit from the gamed wage/price structure installed by very powerful business interests, or are screwed on purpose by that structure--as in the case of the cost of prescription drugs in the US generally, and under Medicare particularly, and as in the case of flat US wages since 1970. So we are both oppressed victims of the system and its beneficiaries when it comes to produce, for instance. We are not merely innocent bystanders observing the greed of the US employer and the exploitation of the Mexican laborer. We are complicit in his and her exploitation, too. I reckon that our share of the ripoff pales by contrast to the share raked in by the CEO and the shareholders. But still.

So. If you both care about the capability of the US worker to earn a genuine living wage, AND the Mexican workers' vulnerability to rank exploitation in termns of payment and working and living conditions, then you have a duty to ask your legislator some tough questions.

1. How does the bill define "labor shortage" and who decides?
2. What measures are in place to prevent AZ employers from utilizing cheap foreign labor to undercut market-based wages for native workers?
3. What safeguards are in place to ensure decent working and living conditions of guestworkers and native workers equally and alike?
4. What safeguards are in place to prevent the wages paid to guestworkers from eliminating native workers qualified for an interested in equivalent positions
5. What criteria ensure that AZ employers have genuinely been unable to hire native workers at a fair, living wage given the conditions of the jobs involved?

This is, given the present state of capitalism, a matter of balance or the whole house of cards will collapse. It does no good to pretend otherwise. At the same time, every reputable measure indicates that worker productivity in the USA is going heavily to benefit the CEO and scarecely at all to benefit the worker. I am sure that there is a lot of manuverability in this sum/zero equation. I am sure beyond any doubt that we can effect a sum/sum equation, and that our collective future depends on our doing just that, here and in every sector of the market. It's the job of our elected lawmakers to ensure that this happens. If they don't do it voluntarily, it's our job to make sure they do it anyway.