Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

`Work without Justice'

Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

`Work without Justice'

Article excerpt

Report details tough conditions for `serfs of the service economy'

For most Americans, Labor Day is little more than a punctuation mark at the tail end of the summer. For "the serfs of the service economy," however, those who support most American's affluent lifestyle by contributing their low-cost labor to low-cost foods, hotel bills and less-than-minimum-wage restaurant jobs, Labor Day represents an ideal, a star they can see but not touch.

In its recent study, "Work Without Justice: Low Wage Immigrant Laborers," the Catholic Legal Immigrant Network, which goes by the acronym CLINIC, describes once again reality for those in the white coats busing the holiday tables, in the grease-stained coats serving up food 12 hours a day seven days a week, in the green overalls keeping the resort gardens manicured, in the crisp uniforms working the toilet bowl brush in the vacated hotel room and in the sweat-stained shirts and blouses plucking the greens for the all-you-can-eat salad bar. And those in the hardhats building the next resort a mile further along the beach.

The foreign-born, states CLINIC, constitute 10 percent of the U.S. population. They make up 34 percent of those working in private households; 21.4 percent in personal services (hair styling, etc.); 18.5 percent in eating and drinking places; 12.8 percent in construction.

Eighty-one percent of farm workers are foreign-born.

"They endure," states the report, "sub-minimum wages and non-payment of wages, or receive pay checks and do not earn enough to escape poverty. From 1968 to 1994 the incomes of the bottom fifth of wage earners increased only 8 percent, a decrease in real dollars. By contrast, the incomes of the top fifth increased by 44 percent." At the same time, these sacrificing, impoverished laborers manage to send home $30 billion annually to families poorer than themselves.

"Work Without Justice" reports that despite recent successes at organizing immigrant laborers, membership in unions has declined from 39 percent of workers in 1954 to 13.9 percent today, "with lower rates in service industries."

In the absence of unionization, low-wage laborers depend heavily on federal and state enforcement of workplace safety and anti-discrimination regulations, but the Department of Labor has only 942 "wage and hour" investigators for the entire country.

When workers try to organize, other laws -- those of the Immigration and Naturalization Service -- can be suddenly used against them.

CLINIC reports on a 1999 roundup at the Holiday Inn Express in St. …

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