Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Immigrant Rights ARE Worker Rights

Have you ever carried hundreds of pounds of blistering hot steel rebar up and down makeshift construction ladders for 14 hours in 115 degree heat? I didn't think so. Well, here's one thing you can take to the bank. When Enrique gets home from a day's work, sorry but he just really doesn't have the energy to go on a crime spree, and he can't afford a gun anyway.

Is every policy in the country based on BS, superstitions, and myths or is it just immigration policy and workplace safety and health?

So. See if this looks like a recipe for success: I live in the state with the worst ranking in the country for worker rights. It's also the state with the highest concentration of low skilled immigrant workers. See any coincidences here? I don't.

When desperation joins hunger and "foreignness," what you get is a powerless worker with no voice and no visibility. When you've got that, you've got paradise for a handful of unscrupulous rich white SOBs who rule this state and disaster for everybody else.

The Phoenix 50, I think they're called. The founding pastor of a church we attended -- note past tense -- used to brag that he hung out with them, was one of them. Maybe that explains why he didn't think the women on his staff needed a pension. This church, with its $8 Million endowment, thinks "social justice" means making sure every woman at the Christmas party gets asked to dance.

Anyway, last night I had the honor of interviewing an undocumented worker about what it's like to lay rebar in the corrupt and vicious Phoenix commercial construction industry. I got an education that made me cry. And made me ashamed and very angry.

1. Enrique (not his name) says it's good that he works for the worst construction employer in town, because the others don't have jobs. This company underbids everybody else. That's the main way to keep the profits in the white men's pockets and the risk on the back of the Brown men doing the work.

2. The company doesn't provide water at the work sites. You heard me. This is the Sonoran Desert, it gets hotter than hell here, and in the summer sun on bare dirt with huge piles of steel lying around, it is hell.

3. Starting out or a ten-year veteran with this company, you'll make $12/hour. They don't do raises. That's how it is for most of the guys. There's no training. You just learn the hard way.

4. Enrique has to bring 5 gallons of ice water to work every day and haul it himself wherever he's assigned, high up or on the ground. Along with his 50-pound tool belt. If the temperature exceeds 100 degrees, the company will give him a 10 cents/hour water supplement. That's 80 cents a day, and it doesn't even cover the ice.

5. He has to provide his own gloves ($2.50), hard hat $20), rebar pliers ($15), safety harness ($250), safety hook ($10), and tools. He goes through three pairs of gloves a week, even with duct tape. His safety harness lasts about a year.

6. He has no sick days, no vacation days, and no pension. When he starts to approach 35, he knows he'll be fired for younger, stronger, faster meat. But he's got nowhere else to go.

7. If his wife and kids were here and he wanted health insurance for them, it would cost him $80 to $100/week.

8. There are no safety requirements in Phoenix, AZ. If he dehydrates, faints, and falls off the freeway he's building, that's his tough luck. He worries about that.

9. He's glad he works for this outfit all the same, because right now, they're building a highrise. Sheriff Joe Arpaio doesn't conduct suprise raids for "illegals" at high-end construction sites in nice neighborhoods. Sheriff Joe prefers freeway construction sites and dirt pits in Buckeye.

10. Enrique commutes by car 60 miles round trip. When he's reached 40 hours in a week, he's sent home. This is to avoid having to pay Enrique overtime. If he hits 40 hours fifteen minutes after he's driven 30 miles to get to work, well, that's just too bad. Worse still, if the foreman doesn't want to sign him in that day, he won't get paid for his commute time, either. This method keeps him from ever knowing for sure when he'll have reached 40 hours, so he can't plan his work week to take a second job.

11. If he sprains his back, he either misses work and risks being fired or he works with a sprained back. He knows. He's been there and done that.

12. Rebar lying in the desert sun gets too hot to touch barehanded, and blisters the men's shoulders. It burns through leather work gloves in two days. When he cuts the wire to wrap the rebar into its grids, the ends snap back and slash his forearms.

13. Sometimes he gets referred to another job site with no notice. But again, if either the sending or the receiving foreman doesn't like his looks, he won't be signed in and he won't get paid for his commute time. Sometimes he won't get paid, period. The gas his his problem. He spends $70/week just to get to work.

15. Enrique is terrified of being picked up. He says everyone he knows is terrified. Because what if he doesn't have his passport or any money with him? What if he's wearing shorts and flip-flops just to walk to the corner market? If he's caught in a raid, Enrique will be deported "as is." He knows Mexican guys who've ended up in Guatemala without a centavo to get home. As he's talking to me, he looks panicky, as who wouldn't. Enrique tells me that it's good that his wife and babies aren't here because what would they do if some day he didn't come home? What would they think? What would they do? How would he ever find them again?

Enrique has been here for five years. In that time, he has put himself through union training and, by moving back and forth between employers, has managed to build his marketable experience and to leverage the system so that he now makes $23.75/hour, which still is easily $12 to $15 less than he would make in Philadephia or New York or even L.A. as an experienced rebar man.

Enrique pays federal, state, and city taxes and Social Security because these are taken straight out of his paycheck, just as they are for you and me. He's not getting anything for free. But he never sees a tax refund and he'll never use Social Security. He'll either be dead or deported before he's 65.

This is who we're harassing, abusing, cheating, deporting, and terrifying.

Enrique is an innocent, naive, sweet, young peasant man. His dark brown eyes are big as a deer's, graced with long lashes. He's about 5'7" tall but his shoulders are massive. He's cooking his dinner when we arrive. It's beans and red chile and chicken left over from last night.

If Enrique were at home in Chihuahua, he'd be a farmer like his father and his brothers, except there's no more land and what there is can't support all these families.

He's never known anything but hard work. All that crap about "lazy" Mexicans is the biggest lie in town. I know. I've hired lots of these guys to help me with yard work and landscaping. They kill themselves.

Enrique wears his crucifix, goes to Mass when he can, and sends his money home to his wife. Enrique didn't come here to rip off the system or rape little old ladies. He came here to build his dreams. He came here on faith and trust, ready to bust his back to build a better life. He didn't think it would be like this in the USA.

Enrique isn't who we need to worry about. It's his bosses I fear. And the Phoenix 50 and the pols they put in office. It's the McBushes we have to fear, not Mexican peasants with an upward mobility complex.


Liana said...

Yeah, we also need to worry about the comfortable white people in our churches who live in those high rises or drive on those overpasses or shop in those buildings and never give a second thought to the lives sacrificed in providing them those privileges. We need to worry about a mentally ill person running a major law enforcement agency and running it on his own ego-agenda rather than high order law enforcement practices. We need to worry about local government officials who either look the other way or only speak platitudes about how we all should be concerned for our neighbors then cut our neighbors off at the knees with policy recommendations that get adopted by popular vote.

Pico said...

Yeah. That's exactly what I meant by his bosses, the Phoenix 50, and the pols they put in power.

The system encourages and rewards this abuse. As long as we pretend it's nothing to do with us, we encourage and reward it, too.