Tuesday, June 20, 2006

I have been thinking about illegal immigration, if for no other reason than because the republicans want us to. Well, there was an instructive article in the NY Times about the employment of illegals (www.nytimes.com/2006/06/19/business/19illegals.html?ei=5070&en=77b1a47a20ae8d31&ex=1151035200&adxnnl=1&adxnnlx=1150906477-FmhcuOi22fRx+hj3CbB1Sw). It seems to me like there are three possibilities for who benefits from the widespread employment of illegal’s: we all do, the really rich do, or some combination of all of us and the rich.

Use of illegal’s in low skill service and manufacturing jobs depress wages, ... well duh. I mean, apparently illegal’s aren't working for $1 an hour (at least, not in too many places). But businesses of all sizes are paying 8, 10 maybe even 15 dollars an hour for really physically demanding jobs, from cleaning to construction to animal processing and agriculture.

What is interesting is that apparently these situations look a lot like normal employment, with just a few twists. According to the Times, cleaning crews are often mixed legal and illegal. In that kind of situation, the employer can set a relatively low wage, hire as many qualified legal workers as show up, and then hire other workers whose documentation is less clearly legal. The kind of legal workers who accept a job at depressed wages may not be surprised if the employer ignores some or even all mandated breaks or safety standards for the jobs. Obviously the illegal workers can not complain about labor law violations. So mixed legal and illegal work crews in various low skilled manufacturing and service industries may cost less and show short term productivity advantages over all legal crews. Considering the punishing nature of perhaps most of these jobs, turnover rates may make the long term irrelevant.

The employer only commits a crime in hiring illegal's if they have reason to know that the worker is illegal. A reasonable forgery of a social security card, green card, drivers license, in whatever combination to satisfy the I-9 requirement lets the empolyer off the hook. At the same time I would bet 90% of the time the employer knows who is legal and who isn't, and takes advantage where they can. But for appearance's sake employers with-hold and file the federal, state, local, Medicare and social security taxes, all under the phony social security number the illegal provied. After a year the IRS will probably send a letter saying the SS# is wrong, according to their files. But since the taxes have been with-held, I would suspect the IRS places a lower priority on fixing these problems when there are plenty of people who have not paid taxes. The employer may be able to ignore the IRS notification, tell the employee they need to provide a new number, or even just fire the employee. Meanwhile, I strongly suspect those with-held taxes are simply added into the whole, providing the rest of us with an unexpected windfall (depending on how you see the employment picture, whether those jobs would otherwise be filled with legal bodies, at what wage, how many, etc).

So, lower wages for our roofs, pork and chicken, and office and hotel cleaning. Some of that may translate into lower prices available for everyone, other instances of savings may simply disappear into corporate profits (stockholder dividends or corporate officer salaries: the rich, in other words). Who knows how a corporation passes a savings in the cleaning part of overhead along, for example. As far as the taxes with-held on phony SS#’s, the social security and Medicare tax contributions probably benefit people who rely on those services, while an argue could be made that the regular tax contributions help hide the effect of tax cuts for the rich.

What strikes me is that this part of the immigration debate is not explicitly discussed. How much it is implicitly understood is not clear. I don't even want to think about the personal and corporate property implications of low bidding out cleaning crews.

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