Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Why Americans won’t take certain jobs

Recent debates over immigration have gotten a lot of attention in Florida and Georgia because of the possibility of more intense enforcement of rules regarding who can and cannot work in the U.S.

Oddly enough, the main group that is condemned is not those who are in the country illegally and trying to work with falsified papers, but rather those who are “legal” but will not take certain jobs, especially on farms. In states with large agricultural operations, including but not limited to Florida and Georgia, “illegal” workers are considered an integral part of the labor force because they are supposedly willing to take the jobs Americans won’t do.

Many employers claim that Americans won’t take jobs at resorts, hotels and other places where wages are low and benefits are mostly non-existent. The freedom to change jobs for a better opportunity bothers many employers in that part of the economy, and they dream of a workforce that cannot move to another position.

The thing is, most American employers follow the law in hiring, making certain during the process that potential employees are eligible to work in the U.S. During my bout with unemployment, I was asked multiple times for my Social Security card and was advised to fill out the I-9 form accurately and completely when applying for jobs, and on those occasions when I was successful, like with the Census, The Bradenton Times and the Gainesville Sun.

As a proud American citizen, it would be a crime for me to work under another’s Social Security number, even if the dreaded “no match” letter was somehow ignored by the employer. Paying into the system with the right number means that when I retire, I will get the benefits to which I am entitled. The fact that I could get into serious trouble for using someone else’s Social Security number is a motivation to stay on the right side of the law, too.

Employers caught in the web of Immigration and Customs Enforcement routinely claim that so far as they knew, their workers had legal status to work, and they had no way of knowing that the Social Security numbers didn’t match. Considering that certain industries – agriculture, but also hospitality and meatpacking – have devoted decades of effort to driving down workers’ wages and eliminating health and other benefits for the regular line workers, it boggles the mind as to why those in high positions in those industries would be surprised if Americans did not want such jobs that place them at a serious and devastating economic disadvantage, unless they were beyond desperate. And even then, if a better job comes along, most folks will take it.

That’s the American way, and not just for the economic, social and political elite.

“They’re doing jobs Americans don’t want to do” is something you hear in the news media all the time about people working illegally, but no one wants to explore why Americans don’t want to do those jobs.

Here in Florida, it’s pretty much an open secret – often revealed by newspapers – that while President Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves, and the 14th Amendment made it the law of the land, in some parts of Florida the word hasn’t arrived yet. A few years ago, The Palm Beach Post published an investigative series that noted that slavery was being practiced in the Glades. My paper, the Gainesville Sun, revealed that a local farmer had contracted with a labor contractor who allegedly enslaved Haitians who escaped from their earthquake-ravaged land. That case has yet to go to trial.

And there have been many stories about wage theft, where employers simply hired workers, promised them a pay rate and failed to pay them that rate or at all, citing a poor business climate. Businesses from the smallest mom-and-pop to even some technology firms that ran out of money would run payless paydays. I worked at a newspaper that twice failed to make payroll. Not only were people laid off without severance or vacation payouts, let alone their final paychecks, they were walked out the door in a humiliating manner.

This, oddly, led to them having to hire people because so many others suddenly quit, fearing they weren’t going to get paid. I left soon after the payless paydays and layoffs. A worker on a migrant work visa might not have that option to change jobs that I had, or might be dragged back and forced to work, even for no pay.

When I moved to Florida in 1986, there was talk about how the sugar industry in the Glades hired Jamaicans to cut sugar cane for them because we stupid, lazy Americans didn’t want to do it. No one seemed concerned that the “H-2 workers” (there was a documentary film of the same title in the late 1980s) were mistreated, lived in miserable conditions and often had their pay rate changed at the whim of the sugar companies. The area around the southern tip of Lake Okeechobee in Florida has some of the worst living areas in the state, with cities destroyed by political corruption and dominated by agri-businesses that depend upon poverty wages paid to workers.

It would be a small wonder to a normal person why someone would not take a job out there, but it was a mystery to politicians, whose idea of hard work is taking a job shuffling paper with the United Way or another useless nonprofit.

Other companies found a way to import slaves through student work visas, where naive students from other countries would be brought here after borrowing money at usurious interest rates to work during the summer break, and learn about America. Well, what some learned is that America is the land where businesses can exploit workers like animals. As for the cultural exchange, well, I guess there was being cursed at in a language you don’t understand.

To politicians, whose immediate family members usually can find work at local nonprofits shuffling paperwork and making photocopies, it may seem that Americans are lazy because they won’t take labor that might not pay or pay very little, destroy their health, ruin their lives and turn them into little more than chattel.

But it’s because we value ourselves and our own lives, as far as we possibly can, that we will not take jobs that are degrading. The employers know this, but still have worked to make jobs low-wage and no benefits, and then blamed the unemployed for not giving up their dignity.

We are still people, despite the claims of those other people (aka corporations) that we are not, and we will stand up for our dignity.


September 20, 2011 - Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age, The jobless chronicles | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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