AMY MULDOON explains how major corporations take advantage of immigrants--both
legal and undocumented.
STOCK VIDEO footage of desperate migrants climbing fences or wading the Rio
Grande runs on every TV news program about the immigration “crisis.”
The guest-worker program that is part of the final version of immigration legislation
approved by the Senate would alleviate this “crisis” by creating
a perfect marriage of companies that simply can’t afford to pay higher
wages and low-skilled workers looking for jobs.
Or so the rhetoric goes. The reality is different.
Many major U.S. businesses stand to gain tremendously from a guest-worker
program because it will allow them to proceed legally with what they have been
doing to this point illegally.
Though the mainstream media prefers to limit its coverage to the migrants--and
sometimes the “coyotes” who smuggle them across the border--the
truth is that some of the biggest names in Corporate America have gone to great
lengths to fill low-wage jobs with undocumented workers, turning to smuggling
and forgery themselves if necessary.
Greg Denier of the United Food and Commercial Workers union reports that many
companies place ads in newspapers and on radio stations in nearby countries--and
then hire agents to recruit workers and transportation companies to carry them.
“This is not a situation of workers sitting on the other side of the border
looking to come and take American jobs,” Denier told In These Times. “These
workers are lured here with false promises and high hopes.”
In 2001, in the largest-ever such case against an employer, Tyson Foods was
indicted on 36 charges of conspiracy to recruit and transport undocumented workers
from Mexico to 15 of its 57 plants across the country.
The explicit purpose of the program was to improve productivity. The government’s
case included testimony that a Tyson executive’s response to poor production
at the Shelbyville, Tenn., plant was the comment, “That plant needs more
A two-year investigation by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS,
since renamed the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE) charged
that Tyson’s management aided and abetted the falsification of documents
and paid smugglers $100 to $200 per head for workers--who were picked up by
Tyson’s transporters just inside the U.S. border. The INS estimated almost
a third of Tyson’s 120,000 employees to be undocumented.
The trial found Tyson not guilty of creating a culture of lawbreaking, but
not before two managers pleaded guilty and a third killed himself.
In an even stranger travesty of justice, the INS raided Nebraska Beef’s
Omaha plant in 2000, rounding up and deporting some 200 workers. When the company
was charged with recruiting foreign workers to work illegally and providing
false documentation, a judge threw out the case. Why? Lack of witnesses--most
were now in Mexico.
Other sectors of the economy have seen similar schemes. In a 1999 case, Filiberto’s--an
Arizona chain of Mexican restaurants--settled out of court after admitting to
smuggling workers and falsifying documents following raids that rounded up 200
Fines aren’t much of an incentive to stop breaking the law where there
is money to be made.
Wal-Mart--which never met a labor law it didn’t break--was fined $11
million for employing undocumented cleaners, some of whom were locked overnight
in stores and paid no overtime. In 2004, the company took in more than $288
billion in revenue.
In their defenses, both Tyson and Wal-Mart used the tried-and-true corporate
logic that they shouldn’t be penalized for what their subcontractors--in
this case, hiring agencies--are guilty of. Ironically, Tyson didn’t deny
using hiring agencies that recruit foreign workers--but claimed that they assumed
all hires were legal.
The final version of the Senate immigration bill passed last week also calls
for stiffer penalties for corporations that hire undocumented workers. But this
is hot air. In the entire 2005 fiscal year, a whopping two cases were initiated
against employers by ICE.
The government isn’t a neutral arbiter in these cases, either. The Tysons
are major campaign donors, especially to Bill and Hillary Clinton and their
friends in the Democratic Party. Tyson was fined for giving “illegal gifts”
to Clinton Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy, and Hillary Clinton made $100,000
on shady cattle deals through Tyson during the late 1970s. Tyson continues to
hold U.S. government contracts worth more than $200 million a year.
Men and women working without legal status have always had the threat of deportation
hanging over them, but the old system could lead to recrimination against management.
A guest-worker program would keep migrant workers dependent on employers, but
undercut the threat of fines or lawsuits against the bosses themselves.
Guest-worker legislation would also help employers recruit undocumented workers--the
federal government would basically become an international temp agency in the
service of Corporate America.
Industries like meatpacking need a constant stream of fresh--and desperate--labor.
Meatpacking today has the lowest wages, highest turnover (100 percent a year),
and highest injury rate of any sector of manufacturing. Less than a third of
workers are unionized.
Employers have worked very hard to establish this situation, and guest-worker
legislation with three-year limited visas fits their need for a disposable workforce
Guest-worker legislation legitimizes the idea that some jobs are too
dirty or dangerous for Americans, so Corporate America is justified filling
them any way they can. We need a labor movement that says no worker is disposable--and
fights for justice, dignity and safety for all.