Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Them Darn Migrants!

I had to go today to my local Social Services office for an appointment. While awaiting my turn, I shared the waiting room with two other people. At one point, the young woman groused about having to wait so long. The other fellow told her to chill out because the wait here was nothing compared to Seattle or LA. In fact, he said, you probably couldn't find a place to sit because those waiting rooms are almost always jam packed.

The guy then launched into a brief diatribe about how, in California, those darn migrant workers are draining all the resources so that folks like us -- all three of us were lily "white" -- aren't able to receive the various services that WE are entitled to.

I could have simply sat there quietly and allowed the fellow to yammer on, but that's not my nature. I told him that, while it's true that many migrant workers do receive services from various social service agencies, they also make significant contributions into our overall economic system. For example, there are many rich people who owe their fortunes to migrant labor.

"Don't get me wrong, " the fellow responded. "I'm not a bigot. I realize that most migrants work very hard to make a lot of white Americans rich." If he had stopped there, then the conversation would have ended, but he still had another comment or two to add.

"You know what their problem is?" he asked. "They sell themselves short by accepting too little pay." Of course, he continued, this caused them to seek out social services to help them make ends meet.

And why do migrant workers accept such meager wages? Because slave wages in the US are still better than slave wages in their home countries, if they can find jobs at all, and the US plays a huge role in their home country's poor economic situation. Regardless of where a person hails from, we all share the same basic needs: food, shelter, clothes, leisure, etc.

Again, the fellow reluctantly agreed with me. "But if they would learn to organize, then they could demand better wages," he offered.

Migrants tend not to organize because they are here illegally and they're afraid to stand up for their rights because of the fear of being deported. I also pointed out that MOST American workers aren't organized -- though they should be -- because many of today's labor laws don't provide adequate protection against company reprisals. Often, if any worker speaks up, they get fired.

The one other point I would have made -- had I not needed to leave to pick up my wife -- is that there's even a bigger reason why migrant are paid so poorly -- the US economy would collapse if migrant workers were paid a living wage!!

While produce prices have certainly gone through the roof lately, these price spikes are nothing compared to the prices we would have to pay if the farmworkers were paid, at least, minimum wage. Prices like $5 for a head of iceberg lettuce or $20/lb. for pecans would be the norm. The poor in this country -- a number that is increasing daily -- would get to the point in which we couldn't afford groceries and this would result in higher crime and food riots.

No president or governor wants food riots, certainly not in the so-called most prosperous nation in the world. So, the easiest political answer is to pay migrant workers a subsistence or less wage and then to scapegoat them for accepting the terms that we, in fact, created.

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