One day a few years ago, while speaking with a group of day laborers on a New York City street corner, I was asked to translate phrases that described health or physical conditions. I began with phrases like “I have a headache” or “I have a stomach ache.” Then one of the men, Manuel, asked me how to say “I burned my leg” as he uncovered an unsightly area of scarred skin—evidence of a burn he had suffered some time ago. He explained,

I worked in a welding factory. Some gases ignited and burned right through my pants. It looked horrible. I cried so much that day. I didn’t know where to go for help. The foreman called the boss and they told me that I had to leave. I went back later to see about my job because I missed a lot of work…. But I lost the job. The foreman told me that the owner didn’t want to give me any compensation, not even medical care. They told me that I cannot receive any benefits because I only work part-time and I don’t belong to the union. That was true. Legally they did not have to pay me anything. And because I don’t have papers, the boss told me that I was not entitled, that I did not deserve any help either. Why did he say that? [Lifting his pant leg again] Looks ugly, no? At least I still have it.

© Peter Lemieux
© Peter Lemieux

Manuel’s story is not unusual. “On the Corner: Day Labor in the United States”, a national study conducted by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, the University of Illinois, Chicago, and the New School University in New York, found abuse pervasive in the treatment of the more than 100,000 workers seeking or performing day labor every day in the U.S., more than three-quarters of whom are undocumented migrants. The authors found that employers routinely take advantage of these workers, subjecting them to physical or verbal abuse and to hazardous working conditions. In fact, roughly one in five workers had been the victim of violence by an employer, and the same percentage had been injured on the job. But the most frequent abuse was wage theft: 49 percent of all workers reported that they had been denied payment by an employer for work they had completed, and this was just in the two months prior to the survey.

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These figures are not likely to surprise many of us. While the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) does recognize that undocumented workers, once they have a job, share most of the same rights to wages and protection from discrimination and abuse as their legally employed co-workers, these rights are rarely enforced. As Manuel’s bosses’ actions make clear, employers either dismiss these rights, are uninformed, or correctly assume that men like Manuel will lack access to legal assistance or are unaware of their rights.

However, the relationship between employers and workers should not be evaluated solely according to legal statutes; many forms of legal conduct still cross ethical boundaries. And in areas where laws don’t regulate our behavior, we fall back on a more informal system of ethical norms that are especially important in maintaining trustworthy professional relationships. Although, as Manuel acknowledged, his boss was not legally obligated to compensate him for his injury, this does not mean that, from an ethical perspective, Manuel “did not deserve any help,” as his boss claimed. In fact, Manuel’s boss’s conduct, like that described in “On the Corner,” was clearly unethical, and that should be apparent even to people who oppose granting legal rights to illegal immigrants living and working in this country.

It may be unrealistic to expect that undocumented workers will receive the same wages, benefits, and job stability as legal workers—otherwise their employers likely wouldn’t take the risk of hiring them. Yet just because employers enjoy the advantages of a crowded labor market, they are not pardoned from fulfilling their ethical obligations to another human being. No matter how Congress addresses immigration reform, the reality is that employers will continue to seek out and hire millions of workers from an inexpensive and undocumented labor pool. So employers’ treatment of these workers is a pressing ethical and moral concern. Indeed, “On the Corner” has already shown what happens when everyday ethics are absent from the relationships between employers and workers.

Still, even if we believe that employers should treat undocumented workers in an ethical and fair manner, how high should our ethical expectations be, and why? For instance, should employers give raises to workers who work for them consistently over an extended period of time? Do employers have an ethical obligation to pay for some health care if undocumented workers get injured on the job, as was the case with Manuel? What would a more ethical alternative have looked like in his situation? What could we have reasonably expected from his employer?

There are no simple answers to these questions, but they deserve closer scrutiny. For a research study I conducted over almost three years, I stood alongside men as they looked for work as day laborers on a street corner in Brooklyn, New York. In that time, I observed and learned about many employer-employee relationships of the kind documented in “On the Corner,” where workers were abused and exploited, dehumanized, and stigmatized. But I also witnessed informal ethical arrangements between workers and employers that reinforced an unspoken system of rules on the street corner. These examples clearly show how it is possible for employers to hire undocumented workers without compromising their own ethical beliefs. Moreover, these examples can help identify realistic and ethical expectations we as a society should place on employers when they hire undocumented workers. So who was an ethical employer and what did their arrangements look like on the corner?

The ethical employer

Joe, a Hasidic man, frequently stopped by to hire a few of the men, either to assist him in his business as a fish vendor or for personal work at home. He told me,

I like to hire the Mexicans. They work hard and do good work. They really know what they are doing…. I know some of them are illegal, but who cares? They want to work, so I give them work. We are all immigrants in this country, so why are they different? I don’t say we should give them help with everything, but work is okay.

Joe explained that he often saw familiar faces on the corner, “Men I can trust,” and so he would make sure to drive them back to the corner after the workday was over. “Depending on where they live or where they want to go, I’ll take them somewhere else, like to the train station.” Aside from hiring the men on the corner, Joe also employed some of their relatives, particularly women for jobs in domestic service. Another Hasidic employer, who had hired a man named Luis, explained, “We’re good people, too. I gave him a job and I also gave his niece a job in my home. A very nice girl.” Luis described to me his niece’s experiences working as a nanny and house cleaner. “The Jewish man helped her a lot,” he said. “He gave her a mattress that his family was no longer using. A good one…. We were lucky to meet him.”

Guiding these interactions is a fundamental rule followed by ethical employers on the street corner: respect for helping the workers meet their basic needs, which should be a goal of any employer toward their employees. Joe and the other employer had established a baseline level of civil treatment toward their workers. Although Joe doesn’t think that “we should give them help with everything,” he acknowledges that these men should be able to achieve a basic level of dignity through employment. The other employer’s statement that “we’re good people, too” suggests that he sees his own morality reflected in the way he treats his employees.

Unlike a typical work setting, the fast-paced nature of the day labor market provides few opportunities to develop a trusting bond between employers and workers, especially if neither party is sure they will see one another again. Given the impersonal nature of the process and their immediate need for labor, employers may view the men more as commodities than as human beings, thus dissuading them from considering the ethics of their own behavior. But some employers found constructive ways to deal with this issue. Nick, a manager for a small hardware store, told me about the system he devised:

I hired three men to do a paint job for me…. I needed them for three days. So what did I do? I paid them half of one day’s work on the first day. I’m not gonna give them the whole kit-n-caboodle because they may not come back. This way, we both get something, in case they don’t return: I get some work and they get some money. But they came back. So then on the second day, I paid them one and a half—the rest of the first day plus half of the second. On the last day, I paid them in full. They understood why I did it, I think. But I didn’t jip them. And I can hire them again if I need to because now they know me.
By forging his own informal ethical arrangement with the workers, not only did Nick ensure that they both met their basic needs, but he also developed the mutual trust necessary to a longer term relationship.

Other employers expressed a desire to offer the men some dignity in their work experience because they had been in a similar position and appreciated the kind treatment they received from others. They conveyed the important value of reciprocity.
For example, Mr. Zhao, who owned a Chinese restaurant in the neighborhood, often allowed a small group of day laborers to find shelter in his restaurant from New York’s freezing cold, heavy downpours, and sweltering heat. He did not mind that some of the men and I would sit in his establishment, even if we hadn’t planned on buying food.

I give them egg rolls or drinks. They work hard, and so I try to help them when they work for me. I can’t pay them much, but I pay them. That’s better than a lot of people. But then I give them food, too. I understand what it’s like to start new in this country. A man helped me once on the subway when I first came to New York. I would have lost a job because I didn’t know how to get to the place. But he took me there himself. So it’s the same. Someone helped me and so now I have a chance to help them.

Mr. Zhao was treating the men as he liked being treated when he was in a similar situation. But by being a good neighbor to the men, Mr. Zhao’s actions also helped to create a shared sense of membership in the same community. This was very important. Many of the men I met expressed a desire for others to view them as contributing members of their surrounding community. They wished to remove the stigma of being loiterers on street corners who posed a danger to people’s safety. While they valued being identified as hardworking men, they did not just want to be seen as workers. Many of them joined local sports leagues. The majority attended Mass and many were involved in activities at local churches. Few of the men had children in the local elementary schools, but many assisted in school maintenance, especially at Catholic schools.

The men also assisted the community through more subtle but still significant ways. One compelling example is a story told to me by Jerome, a day laborer who arrived in New York from Mexico City three years earlier. Standing on the corner one Friday afternoon after the workday had ended, Jerome and his friends decided to play “quarters,” a gambling game. At one point, turning away from the ruckus of the game, Jerome noticed a man slip out from a window of a ground-floor apartment across the street. He quickly ran inside the corner deli and asked the cashier to call the police. He told me that he thought someone was stealing, but he couldn’t be sure. He often saw a woman walk with her children to that particular building, but he didn’t know which apartment was hers. On the following Monday, Jerome told me that the woman’s husband thanked him for his help. There had indeed been a burglary, though the burglar only stole a few items. Anticipating the burglar’s possible return, Jerome told me that the couple changed the locks to their apartment on that same day.

Jerome had taken on the role of what the late Jane Jacobs and other sociologists have described as the “eyes on the street”—the people who help to maintain the safety and social cohesion of a community through their regular presence in public places. Many other men on the corner can play a similar role.

But people are not encouraged to be contributing members of a community when that community treats them as less than human. The lens through which many of us see these men is as “undocumented,” “illegals,” or at worst, criminals. These labels not only marginalize the men from the community, but by dehumanizing them, they may also very well convey a tacit approval to employers to treat these men unethically.

Greater expectations

These stories help point to some modest ethical expectations we should place on employers. Employers should meet the men’s basic needs, including their health and safety, especially given the tiring and often dangerous work in day labor. At a very minimum, employers should provide breaks during the workday and perhaps even offer the workers food and drink. This also means repairing faulty equipment and providing the gear necessary for the workers’ own protection. They should treat the men with the kind of basic dignity and respect that they would want if they were in the workers’ position. It’s also vital that employers find ways to establish mutual trust between themselves and their workers. All of these steps would not only improve the treatment of workers, but they would also serve the interests of employers by minimizing the chance for injuries on the job, supporting the workers’ commitment to their work, and establishing a sound relationship for future employment.

So how might these principles be applied to a case like Manuel’s? I followed up with Manuel after our initial conversation, and he told me what he thought of his former employer.

He shouldn’t have treated me that way—like I was an animal. The least he could have done was to let me keep working, especially since I was injured. I needed the money. But I expected this from the boss. He doesn’t know me. I’m just a worker, and they found someone quickly to replace me…. But the foreman, he surprised me. He saw me work hard everyday, and I wasn’t paid the same as the other men. I knew he wasn’t going to speak up for me, not to the boss. But why couldn’t he say something to me in private? He didn’t even care to know how I was feeling or if I received any help that day.

Manuel’s frustration clearly expresses his desire to be treated in a civil and humane manner. His own expectations were modest: He really just wanted to continue working and know that his foreman saw him as a human being. Even if Manuel’s employer could not risk the loss in productivity, Manuel’s replacement could have been a temporary hire.

But what more could we reasonably expect of Manuel’s employer? Right after his accident, the foreman or the boss could have arranged for Manuel to be taken to a hospital, either in an ambulance, a cab, or in a co-worker’s car. They might have inquired whether Manuel had any relatives in New York and notified them of Manuel’s emergency. Upon learning that all of Manuel’s family lived in Mexico, they still might have called them, especially since communication and financial assistance from Manuel would be cut off while he was in the hospital.

Moving into a grayer area, should we expect Manuel’s boss to assist with the medical expenses? Manuel did not have medical insurance nor did he receive workmen’s compensation for his injury. Of course, many legal workers lack decent health care coverage, but in a job like Manuel’s, they would usually at least be covered by worker’s compensation for injuries like this one. An offer to cover or partially contribute to Manuel’s medical expenses would have been extremely helpful.  Moreover, it would have been an important symbolic gesture, showing that his boss could at least recognize the man’s pain and suffering. Given that Manuel was hurt on the job, his boss could have continued paying his wage, however modest, so that Manuel could sustain his everyday life, especially since he was not able to earn a living at the time. Even if the boss did not go this far, any effort to contribute to Manuel’s medical expenses or inquire about his health would have satisfied Manuel’s desire to feel cared for as a human being.

How can we encourage employers to feel a greater sense of responsibility to workers like Manuel? My fieldwork uncovered how a cohesive sense of community can nurture ethical arrangements between employers and their workers. Becoming acquainted with family members helped develop ethical arrangements between Joe and his employees, and between Luis and his employer. Nick saw his arrangements with workers as the basis of a long-term relationship, not as an anonymous transaction. The value of reciprocity underscored Mr. Zhao’s motivation for being a good neighbor. By being reminded that these men had a shared stake in their community, the employers treated them better.

Though these kinds of relationships between employers and workers are often worked out in private, there is a role for policy makers to play, too. One step in the right direction would be promoting the growth of formal worker centers, where employers and day laborers can arrange work for the day. Some of these worker centers monitor labor standards, set minimum wage rates, and require that both workers and employers register with center staff. Many also support community events in their neighborhoods. “On the Corner” reported that 63 day labor centers were operating nationwide at the beginning of this year.

These centers have often been a source of controversy, as some people have argued that they legitimize the process of hiring undocumented workers. But given economic and social realities, employers will continue to seek out and hire illegal immigrants, regardless of the centers’ existence. Having these centers would help protect immigrants and low-wage workers from unethical practices. In fact, labor researcher Janice Fine reported in her recent book, Worker Centers, that these centers have been effective in recovering wages for immigrants and other low-wage workers. And by making the process of hiring undocumented workers less covert, a system of accountability on employers could be established that would hopefully encourage them to follow their own ethical instincts. Certainly, the centers may not seem appealing to all employers, especially to those who have few reservations about taking advantage of their workers. But employers who do use the work centers seem more likely to acknowledge the basic dignity of the workers and maintain civility in their employment practices. In the process, the centers would provide dignity to the men and help recognize their status as contributing members of our society.

As politicians and activists continue to debate the larger policy issues around immigration, just as important is the everyday experiences lived by immigrants in the communities around us. To promote the cohesion of a society that values inclusion and wants to hold itself to high moral standards, we should aspire to treat all members of our communities with civility and dignity—and not view some of them as commodities, based solely on how they arrived in this country. Though the decisions of politicians could effect a change in the number of immigrants living and working in the U.S., how these men and women are treated in their everyday lives while they are here is up to us.

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