Dirty work, dirty tricks

Nelda Holder’s recent article on immigrant labor (“Two Boys, Two Worlds,” Aug. 22 Xpress) was touching and well-written, but it only scratches the surface. As a Western North Carolina physician whose patients include migrant workers, I see examples every day of both children and adults who are exploited by employers.

Every morning, various area residents drive up to the local Exxon station to hire day laborers. But sometimes, after cleaning up the yard or completing some other nasty job, those workers return without having been paid a penny. And the employer knows full well that the worker is unlikely to report this theft of wages, because the fear of attracting the attention of immigration authorities outweighs any likelihood of recovering the money.

I was recently involved in trying to get a worker’s paycheck cashed. In the process, I learned that his boss, a local business owner, routinely writes worthless checks to employees who, after going without income for weeks while enriching their deadbeat boss, are forced to quit so they can try to find an actual paying job. At that point, the employer threatens to make it impossible for them to find work in the county if they report him to the authorities.

One of my patients is paid $5 an hour by a local dry-cleaning business; her daughter, a minor, works alongside her for $4 an hour. Many others work for similar wages.

I see local construction companies and farmers who pay “labor contractors” to provide workers, not knowing (and sometimes not caring) how little of what they pay the contractors actually finds its way into the workers’ hands.

I often see farm laborers who are made to work 60 hours a week without overtime pay—and then cheated out of much of the meager amount they expect to be paid, as money is deducted for numerous “expenses” that further line the boss’s pockets. Meanwhile, these people work under dangerous conditions such as illegal pesticide exposure without the legally mandated protective equipment or sanitary facilities. They’re housed in crowded, unsanitary conditions that most U.S. citizens would consider unfit for their pets. And as a result, the boss becomes rich—all the while smugly telling his fellow community and congregation members what a great favor he’s doing “his Mexicans” by providing them with conditions he deems “better than they had it in Mexico.”

Small children are apparently more efficient at some jobs, like picking chilies and those little cherry tomatoes. I’ve seen bosses illegally hire them to work under the same miserable conditions, with no apparent regard for their well-being. Ironically, employers justify this by asserting that the family needs these little ones’ paltry income—when the reason they’re so poor is that the adults aren’t paid a living wage! And in fact, the parents would rather have their children in school but are unable to navigate a school system that clearly prefers not to be bothered with them. So it doesn’t surprise me if corporations as large as Centex are building multimillion-dollar homes while showing little concern for the age, immigration status and safety of their underpaid workers.

What is more surprising, and perhaps even more disturbing, is many Americans’ reaction when they hear about the unfair and degrading treatment of their fellow human beings: justifying this shameless exploitation with the idiotic mantra, “They’re illegal—so they shouldn’t expect any better.”  This simplistic and cynical statement enables any fool, xenophobe, politician or bigot to self-righteously affirm that we share no responsibility for this situation. But in our orgy of consumerism, we and the corporations at whose altars we worship are creating the market for cheap, exploitable, illegal labor. And that’s what lures desperate workers to come here, where they’re exploited so we can live more comfortably and cheaply.

There’s an obvious double standard here. It’s fine for “illegals” to work here, and it’s fine for citizens to hire them illegally, but because of their “illegality,” they shouldn’t expect to be treated like “legal” workers—or even like human beings. Meanwhile the equally “illegal” employers get no less than full effort from the workers—while expecting and receiving the community’s respect.

The immigrant workers I’ve met haven’t come here to invade our country, steal our jobs or subvert the government. They haven’t come to rape or pillage, or to take advantage of a welfare state. They’ve come to do what you or I would surely try to do in their situation—better their families’ lives through hard work and sacrifice. Risking their dignity, their freedom and their lives, they’ve left a country they love to come to one where they’re often despised.

Our immigration situation is the result of complex international forces and corporate greed. The federal government is feverishly crafting policies designed to serve the wealthiest corporations while allaying xenophobic fears. There are no simple answers, but clearly, these problems cannot be resolved or improved by exploiting and ill-treating those who suffer most from the situation.

So, right here in Western North Carolina, we can choose to do one of two things. We can continue blaming the victims for their plight and criminalizing them for their attempts to improve it, even as we exploit and profit from it; or we can demonstrate our better nature by treating all our neighbors the way we want to be treated. Neither approach will solve the “immigration problem,” but only the latter can improve our own lives and those of our fellow human beings.

[Family physician Mark W. Heffington has been in private practice in Cashiers, N.C., for more than 25 years. He’s the medical director and staff physician of the Vecinos Farmworker Health Program and the Community Care Clinic of Highlands-Cashiers.]

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One thought on “Dirty work, dirty tricks

  1. Billr

    Things I thought about while having my heart attack.

    It is funny the things that a person thinks of during a crisis situation or at least to me it was.
    On September 27th a heavy pain in my chest woke me up from my sleep at about 6:00 AM. Since I have a history of an over active stomach, I first though it was the simple indigestion and took a couple anti acid tablets.
    As the minutes went by and I was getting no relief and the growing concern about the pain that was going down my left arm, I started to get a bit concerned. At this point I went into the living room where my wife was since she had been up for a while.
    I told her that I was really having a lot of discomfort and I thought it was really indigestion except that I was starting to get a bit concerned because of the arm pain.
    Now we live about an hours drive from the nearest trauma center and in fact the way the ambulance system is set up here, it would take at least two hours to get transported to a trauma center by calling 911. My wife asked if I thought we should go to the trauma emergency right now. The thing is that if I had said no she most likely would not insist we go.
    The real scary thing is when she asked me that it struck me that if I was not covered by Medicare and a supplemental insurance I would have insisted that I was not going to the hospital. I would have stayed at home instead of going and receiving the care that most likely saved my life. My heart attack was in progress when they ran the test which they ran for such symptoms as they usually do. However I was fortunate in that catching it when they did and the emergency treatment kept it to a mild attack. They released me late this afternoon and we are at home again now.
    But if I had not had insurance this evening may well have had a far different outcome.
    Also while I was in the emergency room which was quite full of people that were there for any number of reasons, I was wondering how many of them probably did not have any insurance. You have to understand that I live in MS which is the poorest state in the union. One can see the Mexican immigrants and others that appear to be quite poor in almost any emergency room these days as that is in many cases the only access they have to any kind of medical treatment.
    I wonder how many others may have woke up that morning suffering from something that could very well have needed a Doctor’s attention but chose not to go see one because of lack of insurance or being under insured. My heart goes out to those people as I have been there in the past.
    My wife was found to have breast cancer in 2004 and even with her state health insurance the bills that they did not cover stripped us of all savings that we had and left us owing money. But by the grace of God she is so far checking up cancer free and we were so blessed that it was caught at an early stage.
    I know that she and I were and are blessed in the fact our problem were both caught in time. It is time that America decides to treat every person as a worthy human being and that they should be able to have access to health care and to being treated fairly in regards to their labor.
    The author sounds like a Doctor who genuinely cares about his fellow brothers and sisters and for that I commend him. Now if we can only get the right people in our government who will work to right some of the things that are terribly wrong with the system.

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