“Our clients receive happy, appreciative employees that will thank you for allowing them the opportunity to work for you,” boasted Kansas City staffing company Giant Labor Solutions. Contract for workforce needs with their company and “your recruiting, hiring, and payroll expenses will dramatically drop.”
What a pity trifles like alleged racketeering, forced labor trafficking, wire fraud and money laundering can come between employers and a cheap, compliant workforce.
As Thomas Frank describes the federal charges against Giant Labor in a recent Wall Street Journal column:
“The Kansas City ring recruited hundreds of workers from Jamaica, the Philippines, and the Dominican Republic with promises of visas through the federal H-2B seasonal worker program. To get the process started, however, the indictment says that workers had to pay the accused racketeers hefty fees.
“Once in America, the workers found themselves at the mercy of the traffickers, who allegedly kept “them as modern-day slaves under threat of deportation,” in the words of James Gibbons of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The recruiters apparently took care to keep the workers in debt, charging them fees for uniforms, for transportation, and for rent in overcrowded apartments. Paychecks would frequently show “negative earnings,” in the words of the indictment. And if the workers refused to go along with the scheme, the traffickers held the ultimate trump card, the indictment claims: They “threatened to cancel the immigration status” of the workers, rendering them instantly illegal.”
The situation vividly illustrates the perils of guest worker programs. But it’s not only the trafficked immigrants who lost out at Giant Labor.
The exploited laborers primarily worked on hotel housekeeping staffs, cleaning rooms. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, they shared the occupation with more than 400,000 U.S. workers in 2008, making a national median wage of $9.13 an hour. It’s not hard to imagine that hotel owners might not ask too many troublesome questions when a company like Giant Labor stepped in with a deal to slash their labor costs. But neither is it hard to conceive the impact of those lower wages and miserable working conditions on other hotel employees trying to get by on what is already a poverty wage for families.
But if we can drag hotel workers down, we can also raise them up. In the New York City metro area, for example, housekeepers average $15.30 an hour and many get full family health benefits. The reason, of course, is the high unionization rate in the area’s hotel industry, which pushes even non-union hotels to offer competitive pay and benefits to prevent their most efficient employees from leaving – or worse yet, organizing a union of their own.
The nation faces a stark choice when it comes to hotel work, or any other employment. We can pass the Employee Free Choice Act, and watch a wave of union organizing lift workers throughout the country. Or we can expand guest worker programs and stick with a status quo where Americans compete for work with millions of undocumented workers with no effective rights on the job. You can bet hotel employees in Kansas City will feel the difference.
About the Author: Amy Traub is the Director of Research at the Drum Major Institute. A native of the Cleveland area, Amy is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Chicago. She received a graduate fellowship to study political science at Columbia University, where she earned her Masters degree in 2001 and completed coursework towards a Ph.D. Her studies focused on comparative political economy, political theory, and social movements. Funded by a field research grant from the Tinker Foundation, Amy conducted original research in Mexico City, exploring the development of the Mexican student movement. Before coming to the Drum Major Institute, Amy headed the research department of a major New York City labor union, where her efforts contributed to the resolution of strikes and successful union organizing campaigns by hundreds of working New Yorkers. She has also been active on the local political scene working with progressive elected officials. Amy resides in Manhattan Valley with her husband.
This article originally appeared in DMI Blog on June 23, 2009. Re-printed with permission by the author.