Work ethic, work atrophy... and those "detestable illegals"

For the last six weeks we, in the US, have been absorbed by three topics: the ongoing fiasco in Iraq, escalating gas prices and “illegal immigration.”

In my corner of the world, our major newspaper, serving an extended metropolitan area of over 2 million people, gives a tally every week as to the letters-to-the-editor received, most popular topics, and the position taken by those writing the letters. For example, this past week it received 732 letters, its hottest topic being illegal immigration with 170 letters – 138 of which were in opposition, 17 in favor and 15 had no opinion. The ratio of 8-1, opposition to support on illegal immigration, comes very close these days, to that in opposition to support of the Iraq entanglement.

As far as letters received by this newspaper, 6 to1 pen-activists are against the war; almost in complete reversal of those writing letters during the first half of 2003. What a turnabout… now that we seem to know “the facts”! Could the same change of mind occur if we were also told the facts about these immigrants “that are reaping us off economically, desecrating our culture and breaking the laws of the land?” Well… don’t count on it, for racism has a more sinister hand. But it would certainly help to have lots more factual information made available, and have the subject addressed with greater transparency… hopefully exempt from political manipulation and social malice.

A month ago my column touched on the realities that are intertwined with undocumented or illegal immigration. But realities presented to us as generalities seldom bring home the point, particularly when one’s mind tends to be pretty much made up on a given issue – oftentimes because of personal experiences or strong influences from those we tend to trust, including the media. I will try this time to touch upon the subject from my own career-perspective, as both an industrial engineer and management counsel to owners/managers of small and medium-size businesses.

Aside from the technicality of illegally entering the country, not intending to add or subtract any criminality associated with that act, the biggest problem most see with the undocumented workers is the economic solvency in their being here. Are they taking jobs from people born here? Do they produce more than they consume when such things as education and health care (at public expense) are plugged into the equation?
A substantial majority of Americans, if you follow the polls, seem to feel that immigrants these days have a negative economic impact, fueled in part by political conjecture drawn from incomplete, irrelevant or defective economic data. Let me make the case.

First of all, most work performed by these undocumented immigrants is not in the underground economy. Proportionally that segment of the economy hasn’t changed much in the last two generations. The bulk of earnings by these immigrants goes through payroll and is properly taxed… even if it remains to be seen whether these payers of premiums for Social Security and Medicare will ever get to receive benefits. These immigrants, as a rule, work at the normal, “ground level” economy, even if they are doing so with forged documents; something that both business and government have come to accept for well over a decade as a fact of life, a dirty little secret not to be discussed. Not just in agriculture, but in construction, hospitality, health care and some sectors of manufacturing and food processing; undesirable jobs for the most part to just about any American… even at a much higher pay scale.

Do these people earn their keep? Amply so; and at times, as it’s the case in jobs in agriculture, several fold. If these jobs were evaluated, and physical demands, working conditions, and health risks assigned the proper values, the positions paying $8 to $12 per hour (the higher figure associated with high productivity piecework) would be ranked with a compensation value 50+% higher than many non-trade, non-managerial positions in civil service paying in the $14 to $18 per hour range. Translation: these immigrants are really being paid 40% ($8) in agriculture of what they should legitimately be paid ($20) if job evaluation (and classification) applied to their jobs. But like the slaves who built the pyramids in Egypt, job evaluation is not applicable to them.

The disparity in earnings applicable to other industries or services, although it exists, is not as pronounced… or as evident. My own evaluation in the regional construction industry for unskilled and semi-skilled labor (multiple trades) gives a higher percentage, perhaps closer to 60-70% of “legitimate earnings” (versus 40% in agriculture). This 60-70% range is probably more representative of the entire non-agricultural sector.

No matter what the true figures happen to be, which affords ample opportunity for some worthwhile economic research… and a few doctoral dissertations, the obvious fact stands out that if we apply the “unpaid earnings” to the number of undocumented immigrants, we may have between $80 billion and $120 billion per year that these “illegals” pay to the American economy for the privilege of working here. A few of those billions will end up in the employers’ pockets, but most of it will result in lower prices, due to competition, for the goods and services they help produce.

Whatever our personal feelings on this explosive topic, we must agree that there has been a socio-economic redeeming result, if short term, since the lower prices have in great part affected the commodities and services in non-discretionary spending. So, contrary to those who claim that these “illegals” came to take the jobs of the native poor, they have indeed helped the American poor. It’s ironic that some social justice is brought about by the poor (from outside the US) helping the poor (in the US).

Are we seeing a new work ethic by these undocumented workers replacing the work atrophy that has been slowly taking root in the American workplace? See what has happened at the gas pump? Without these “detestable illegals” the same thing would be happening at the supermarket. Are our poor and middle class ready for that?