By Michael Fry
Business is booming in California, and while many of us sit back and enjoy all the benefits that come with being a citizen of the United States, there is a level of acknowledged ignorance across the state regarding our immigrant workforce. Migrant workers from all cultures are often forced to work under constant threat deportation and for very little to no pay. The California Immigrant Policy Center (CIPC) states "California has the fifth-largest economy in the world but also has the fourth-highest level of income inequality in the nation.” It appears that California is very much invested in maintaining a migrant workforce to supply cheap labor for our agriculture, servicing, and manufacturing industries.
Our workers have no union contracts and very little understanding of our legal rights, which often leads to employers violating these laws with minimal repercussions. Worse, almost all these cases when brought to light, end with worker deportation instead of a conviction for the business. Leading to a vicious cycle of employment abuse that has gone on for decades and all for the benefit of California’s economic status. The fact that if an employee complains about pay or is injured on the job and can be removed with an anonymous phone call to ICE is fiscally problematic in a free labor market and effects the accumulation of family wealth across the board. Companies profit significantly through illegal labor practices and force unfair competition in the market. This, in turn, can allow for price undercutting, market share acquisition, and a handful of other snowballing effects.
California once again addresses the hindrances that prevent this minority group from being able to work in such conditions without actually targeting the main problem. Proposition 1 suggests providing affordable housing for farmworkers and low-income residents with mobile homes and transit-oriented housing. This provides temporary relief to workers across the state, unfortunately, it changes nothing for the working conditions that transpire daily within our cities. Pundits will state that these types of measures will push forward immigrant rights, but they only perpetuate the growing problem of wealth inequality in California. A problem that is hidden behind political fundraising and heavy lobbying on multiple business fronts.
In the summer of 2016, the labor department investigated 77 garment factories located around Southern California that supply retail clothing chains like TJ Maxx, Ross, Nasty Girl, Forever21 and Macy’s just to name a few. With violations ranging from underpayment, threats of deportation, to health and safety issues. These workers are often subject to the use of highly exploitative practices involving the threat of deportation, excessive forced debts for room and board, and intimidation tactics that put the blame on the employee. A common theme among these employers warns that if one employee speaks out, everyone gets deported. That pressure alone could silence even the most committed rights advocates.
The Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) issued multiple state-wide surveys over the past few years, and up to 82% of Californians felt that providing clear pathways for undocumented immigrants to become legal citizens with a specific set of requirements is a good idea. With initiatives like the Power Act, we can start to provide some measure of protection for Californian employees. By granting temporary reprieves from deportation for 5 years(the minimum amount of time to apply for a green-card) not only for whistleblowers but for all employees involved in labor abuse, we can more effectively rebalance the business playing field while stimulating the economy naturally.
California needs to correct the level of wealth inequality and abusive practices taking place within its borders. This, in turn, should not only increase overall funding supplied to local governments through properly documented taxation but could also lower crime often associated with lower income environments. However, the tactics at play within the current California government focus solely on providing limited rights that entice more and more immigrants to remain silent instead of speaking out. They are provided with quasi-benefits aimed at keeping the workforce healthy and mobile enough to work through drivers’ licenses and free medical at the cost of taxpayers, instead of the companies that employ them. We hire undocumented workers knowing that we can take advantage of their vulnerabilities. Dreamers are protected to a certain point, but what good is it to protect a child from deportation if you take their parents away? How does a family build self-wealth or change public policy when we constantly find ways to pull them apart? These minor victories do little more than provide a carrot dangling from a stick to the constant influx of undocumented immigrants who enter California each and every year only to be excluded from basic civil rights afforded to U.S. citizens.
From agriculture to textile and services, we ride freely on the back of our immigrant population with more concern over their right to live in these conditions than in fixing the conditions themselves. An unacceptable outcome to a group of hard-working "Americans" living and providing economic benefits within our community, even if their title is not official.