Eugene Weekly : Viewpoint : 7.28.11

Summer Jobs
No Americans wanted
by Gordon Lafer

It’s summer — the season when high school and college kids hit the streets looking for jobs. But the hunt is getting harder than ever. The percentage of teenagers who got jobs last summer was the lowest since World War II. This year, 1.5 million teenagers were unemployed as of May — before school let out. 

For decades, American college kids have flocked to cheesy boardwalk towns as one of the prime sources of summer work. But this year, when members of Congress escape D.C. for the Maryland shore, the people who sell them T-shirts, serve them cotton candy and usher their kids onto the boardwalk rides are most likely to be Russians or Ukrainians. 

How did these jobs get outsourced to kids from the East? Simple. It’s a giveaway from Republican leaders — the same people who can’t stop complaining about “illegal immigrants” — to their donors in the retail industry.

Under the J-1 visa program, up to 150,000 foreign students work in the U.S. every summer — primarily from the former Soviet Union. There is no limit on the number of students who can be brought in, and no requirement that employers hire Americans before turning to foreigners. Though the program is promoted as “cultural exchange,” there is, in fact, no culture and no exchange. No American kids are going to work in Moscow. And those who come here get no educational content whatsoever. In fact, the government pays so little attention to the jobs these kids get that the J-1 workers were found working in strip clubs last summer.

This is cheap labor, pure and simple. Employers prefer these kids to hiring Americans for obvious reasons. First, in Russia, unlike the U.S., it’s legal to advertise for “cute blonde girl, 18-21.” No fatties in the cultural exchange! Furthermore, employers get to pay low wages, no Social Security, no Medicare, and no health insurance. And even if J-1 workers are cheated out of their modest wages, they’re unlikely to ever complain.

Here’s what you need to know about being a guestworker: you don’t get a visa to the U.S.; you get a visa to a single employer. If you do anything to piss off your boss, you can be fired on the spot. And if you’re fired, you’re deported. It costs a few thousand dollars to get here, and most people don’t have that kind of money, so they borrow it from friends and family. So if you’re deported before the summer is over, you’ve screwed your extended family. 

This is what makes guestworkers beloved by bosses everywhere. Spray pesticides on them in the fields; make them sleep 10 to a room; overcharge them for crappy trailer housing — they won’t make a peep. And if they do — send them home! It’s not like they can write a letter to their congressman. 

Last year, student guestworkers were paid as little as $1 an hour, with some housed in apartments so crowded that they slept in shifts and ate on the floor. In Ocean City, Md., a church found itself serving meals to 1,700 foreign students who lined up nightly at its homeless shelter.

Employers prefer these cheap, docile and disposable workers to us uppity locals — and they’re trying to replace more and more of us. In 2010, U.S. corporations applied to import guestworkers for almost every type of service work — including 40,000 jobs in circuses and amusement parks, 150,000 housekeepers, and almost 500,000 landscape workers. I guess these are some of the “job creators” we keep hearing about.

Here in Oregon, guestworkers have long been used for landscape, forestry, and construction work, and are now also running county fairs, as Beaverton-based Butler Amusements claims it can’t find Americans willing to do this work. 

Every couple of years, someone in Washington tries to crack down on the use of guestworkers. But they never get past the corporate lobbies. The biggest organization pushing for guestworkers is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which founded the “Essential Worker Immigration Coalition.” From its name, you might think EWIC is focused on registered nurses or software programmers; instead, they define “essential workers” as “less skilled and unskilled labor.” EWIC’s membership includes the National Restaurant Association, the Hotel & Lodging Association, Association of Amusement Parks, and the Nursery and Landscape Association. In other words, all the service industries that can’t physically move to Mexico or China now want to bring Mexico and China to them, so they can take advantage of third-world wages without having to leave home.

For the millions of unemployed Americans, it may be a shock to hear that there’s a critical shortage of people willing to wait tables or cut timber. But for big business, what’s “essential” about foreign workers is not their skills, but their desperation. And to replace us with bargain-basement labor, they’re willing to pay handsomely — to politicians, that is. For instance, the Restaurant Association — a big proponent of guest workers — has given $4.5 million to federal politicians since 2005.

For business, guestworkers offer all the advantages of undocumented workers without the stigma of illegality. For elected officials, too, guestworkers are a win-win: politicians can guarantee the flow of cheap workers to their corporate backers, while still talking tough against the “illegals.” The only ones who lose out are all the rest of us — us and the kids eating on the floor.

Gordon Lafer is a UO political scientist and in 2009-10 served as a senior policy advisor to the U.S. House of Representatives. He is also the author of Free and Fair? How Labor Law Fails U.S. Democratic Election Standards (2005).