News/US: Filling a need

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Subject: News/US: Filling a need
From: Melanie Orhant (morhant@igc.org)
Date: Mon Sep 27 1999 - 14:35:56 EDT


Filling a need
U.S. employers' growing reliance on Mexican workers forges opportunities
for labor contractors
By Dianne Solis
The Dallas Morning News, September 22, 1999

LOS MOCHIS, Mexico - Night had fallen, but the spirits of 39-year-old
Conchita Gonzalez were up as she gathered her cantankerous crew for a bus
trip out of this broiling, hot town near the Gulf of California.

The women were about to leave behind tearful children, suspicious husbands
and tiny homes, all for a chance to get a jackpot of earnings on the shores
of North Carolina, extracting delicate, pink meat from the crannies of blue
crabs. And in Washington, N.C., Jimmy Johnson would be ecstatic to receive
them. These Mexican women represented the lifeblood of a family business he
almost shuttered five years ago.

"Every day, people call me and say, 'Take me, take me, take me to North
Carolina,' " said Ms. Gonzalez, a chunky woman with expressive eyes and
impressive ambitions. "Some of them have even worked in banks. The
desperation here is so severe now."

The dependency between Los Mochis, Sinaloa, and the shoreline communities
of the Carolinas, between Conchita and Jimmy, is a microcosm of a broader
phenomenon: The United States and Mexico increasingly function as one labor
market. Mexico readily supplies the workers and the United States happily
places them on its factories' floors.

"There's a de facto, binational labor market," said Luis Torres, a
researcher at the Interamerican Institute of Migration and Labor in
Washington, D.C. "It's in agricultural and now other industries. And it's
composed of a growing and significant number of unauthorized and authorized
workers."

A bigger role

Keeping the labor networks running efficiently has fallen on the shoulders
of labor contractors, whose ranks have swelled as U.S. employers demand
more workers but want less liability in case of immigration fraud.

Some contractors operate legally, such as Ms. Gonzalez, who obtains legal
H2b work visas through a U.S. guest worker program. But many others operate
illegally. Some maneuver through family networks in specific Mexican
villages. Others actually recruit from bustling offices in cities such as
Veracruz on the steamy Gulf of Mexico, Monterrey near the Texas border and
San Luis Potosi, a desert outpost in the heartland.

The North American Free Trade Agreement made the United States, Canada and
Mexico commercially one in 1994. It largely left out the freer flow of
labor, a crucial component in European Economic Community accords. And that
seems to be where contractors stepped in with businesslike efficiency and a
sophistication not seen in previous decades.

Advertisements are placed in Mexican newspapers or on the radio for bakery
workers, taco makers, butchers or welders at work sites as diverse as Plano
and rural Louisiana. "We offer a job exchange center for the United
States," read one brochure from Trans-Visa, a full-service travel agency in
San Luis Potosi.

Interested in lucrative fishing jobs in Alaska, where earnings can
oscillate between $100 to $300 a day? One might respond to this Mexican
brochure: "Now you can find what you're most interested in: The Dollars."

Need phony work papers? In Dallas, home delivery is only a beeper call
away. Dial the number, an entrepreneur shows up with a camera and, within
two hours, returns with a phony permanent resident alien card. Price: $150.

Antonio Gomez, a stocky, 5-foot-4 labor contractor from Veracruz, laughed
at the ease with which he maneuvers. Mr. Gomez has brought in legal workers
for Houma, La.-based Quality Shipyards. Faced with a shortage of welders
and fitters, many shipyards up and down the steamy Louisiana bayous have
hired Mexicans in recent years, illegally and some legally.

Locating labor

"If you need people for fishing, you go to San Luis Potosí," Mr. Gomez
said. "If you need people for the shipyards, you go to Tampico, and you
haul them in just with an advertisement in the newspaper."

Recently, though, several dozen workers left their jobs, tired, they said,
of the rough working conditions, Cajun food, the trailer park's cramped
living conditions next to the plant at the bayou and Mr. Gomez. Many headed
for Pascagoula, Miss., where the pay was nearly double the Louisiana wage,
said a group of workers still laboring with Mr. Gomez under the H2b program.

Under the H2b program, workers must stay with the same employer. When U.S.
immigration authorities visited Mr. Gomez about the defections, the labor
contractor told them there was nothing he could do about the men's flight.

One of the men, 36-year-old Ernesto Ojeda, a welder from the port city of
Tampico, was actually fired. Now, he's working as a welder in another bayou
town. As Mr. Ojeda told it, he was paid less than he was promised by
recruiters working with Mr. Gomez back in Tampico. U.S. citizen workers
received work breaks, and Mexicans frequently didn't, Mr. Ojeda said.

"Our bosses told us the blacks were the slaves before, and now it's the
Mexicans," said Mr. Ojeda, who got fed up and complained and shortly
thereafter was fired.

Fearful that immigration authorities would rout him out, Mr. Ojeda moved
many possessions to the Dallas home of a sister, who resides in the United
States legally. If they grabbed him, Mr. Ojeda said, his possessions would
be stored safely.

Said Alisha Perez, a Houma music-store owner who married a Mexican: "I
think if they treated them right, they wouldn't leave. They take their
visas hostage because they are scared they are going to leave."

Mr. Gomez, the contractor, said he had a grudge against Mr. Ojeda, who he
promised to "get." One recent day, Mr. Ojeda returned to his former
employer's work site. Upon seeing Mr. Ojeda enter the Houma shipyard in a
car, Mr. Gomez stepped on the gas of his own vehicle, initiating a parking
lot chase. Eventually, Mr. Ojeda's vehicle retreated, as did Mr. Gomez's.
As for Mr. Ojeda's allegations, Mr. Gomez said they're all lies.

Mr. Gomez's bosses at Hutco, the firm that provides the labor for Quality,
said they support Mr. Gomez, who has a "thankless job." Said Tim Hebert,
Hutco executive vice president, "The Mexicans we have are salt-of-the-earth
guys. You always have whiners."

It was inevitable that the United States and Mexico begin merging into one
de facto labor market. The U.S. economy is bubbling along at a white-hot
speed, Wall Street's leading stock market indices have zipped to new highs
and unemployment is at its lowest level in three decades.

In Mexico, free-trade policies triggered massive restructuring in the
inefficient economy, particularly in the countryside, and job displacement.
Then there is one other predictable fact of Mexican life: currency
devaluations. Mexico has had five of them in the past 23 years.

War raised demand

The labor contracting networks are rooted in California farm fields, where
the old bracero program got its start and heaviest use. Braceros, literally
arms, were guest workers, who came to the United States shortly after the
1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor and the country's entry into World War II.
Mexico, an Ally partner against the Axis forces, agreed to a plan to supply
Mexicans for U.S. farm fields, as U.S. soldiers began leaving for war.

Though that particular guest worker program officially ended in the early
1960s, the networks never did. In Laton, in the fecund San Joaquin Valley,
crew boss Luis Hernández said growers have doubled the use of labor
contractors in the last four years as a way to shift immigration liability
to the contractors. And the labor contractors, most of them Mexico-born, do
their job well, Mr. Hernandez said. "Now, it's almost as though we are in
Mexico, again," said the 46-year-old from Ponjamo, Guanajuato, Mexico.

In the last five years, there has been a surge of workers into the forests
of the Pacific Northwest. Mexicans simply work harder and cheaper, said
Michael Dale, a Portland, Ore., attorney who's filed a class-action suit
against one employer to get the Mexicans the wages and working conditions
that he argues are required by law. But that also puts pressure on domestic
workers to take a lower salary and "join the race to the bottom or be
supplanted," Mr. Dale said. In either case, "whoever does this work, the
minimum labor standards of this country have to be applied."

In Woodburn, Ore., union leader Ramón Ramírez said crew bosses double as
smugglers, often bringing in workers illegally and flooding Oregon with
laborers. "For the growers to maintain wages really low, they recruit too
many," said Mr. Ramírez, a U.S. citizen.

Good workers

Some U.S.-born workers simply find work in the fields too backbreaking.
Take Bobby Earl McCullers and his wife, Margaret. The tobacco pickers from
Apex, N.C., a growing high-tech region, have seen the workforce change from
predominately African-American to Mexican.

Mr. McCullers, 54, said the Mexicans are hard-working and are needed.

"Us black folks in this area are getting too old for this work," he said.
"It ain't easy work, that's for sure. I can't blame people for not wanting
to do these jobs anymore."

Some employers obviously know they are hiring Mexicans without work papers.
One Plano business advertised in a big Mexican newspaper, asking for bakery
workers and taco makers for jobs in the United States. A Mexico City
resident responded, explained his qualifications as a taco maker, was given
$500 by the employer and told to get to the border across from Roma, Texas.
Once he crossed using the assistance of a boat owner, who charged $35, he
contacted a waiting smuggler in Roma. That person helped make flight
arrangements to Dallas. But his job in Plano was arduous - 12-hour days
with only Sundays free at a mere $300 per week.

He was so aggravated by the abuse, he joked to his co-workers that they
should turn themselves in to immigration officials: "Let's call the migra."
Now, he works at another Plano business. There are plenty of labor
contractors who use legal means to get workers into the United States under
the H2a and H2b guest workers programs.

Amigos Labor Solutions Inc. of Dallas has brought legal workers to the
United States, using recruiters in Monterrey. Its owner, 51-year-old Bob
Wingfield Jr., has plenty of criticism for the unscrupulous of his
profession, the "flesh-peddlers" and "dirt bags." Mr. Wingfield called
himself as "low-end headhunter," who will divorce his company and the
workers from an abusive employer.

And Mr. Wingfield views the Mexicans he sends north legally as saviors of
whole industries, particularly the landscaping field. "For the workers,"
Mr. Wingfield said, "it's an incredible opportunity to come up here and
make $7 an hour in the United States, when you only make $7 a day in Mexico."

Dwindling supply

In Washington, N.C., Jimmy Johnson echoes the same sentiment. Five years
ago, he was down to fewer than two dozen U.S. citizen workers, about a
third of what he normally employed. At the time, there were 43 crab-packing
plants on the North Carolina shore; today, there are only 27. His only
complaint: Raleigh companies who come to Washington to "pillage" Mexican
crab-plant workers for jobs as chambermaids in hotels or as construction
workers. "They'd offer them more money and, boom, in the middle of the
night they'd be gone," Mr. Johnson said.

In Los Mochis, as the women boarded the bus for North Carolina, several
said they were thankful for the U.S. jobs and had no desire to leave Mr.
Johnson's plant.

Indeliza Corral Sanchez, a slightly built 42-year-old, couldn't believe her
luck on getting hired. The single mother of two said she needed the job and
the money to get school clothes and school supplies into the hands of her
boys. As for her own needs, there appeared to be many. A woman so short on
cash, she could only afford one set of lingerie.

"I am the only support for my children," Ms. Corral said as she boarded a
bus out of Los Mochis for the Carolinas. "I am the mama and the papa and I
close my eyes and say, 'God, I am in your hands.' "

A few minutes later, the red-and-white bus, No. 5772, carrying Ms. Corral
and all her hopes, pulled away from Avenida Benito Juarez. As it
disappeared into the inky midnight horizon, children sobbed, the men looked
uncomfortable and the aging mothers frowned.

Competition

That same evening, on another road out of Los Mochis, a crab plant manager
lamented the shortage of good crab pickers. Export Crab de Pacifico has
soaked up the local female labor pool like a gigantic sea sponge, said
plant manager Salvador Carrillo. And every month, he completely has to
replace his workforce of 300 people.

Women have gone to the plant to get training to convince the local labor
contractors that they have the experience to work in North Carolina. Mr.
Carrillo said he does what he can to stem his losses. The most important
personnel question: Are you married with children? If a woman responded,
"Yes," she will be hired. Mr. Carrillo said he figured he's less likely to
lose an employee if there's an affection-needy family in Los Mochis.

But recently, the women of Los Mochis began lying to Mr. Carrillo, who grew
sadder as he poured out his personnel woes. He hit on a bit of revenge,
though. Export Crab is now exporting crabs to the Atlantic, to North
Carolina specifically.

That irony doesn't ease his labor problem, though, or the difficulty of
having labor contractors practically working at his door, snatching his
workers from the shabby little neighborhood across the highway.

"There is no solution," Mr. Carrillo said. "The problem of Mexican
migration is unstoppable. The United States needs cheap laborers, and the
Mexican will always be there."

Elda Gonzalez, a free-lance writer based in Dallas, contributed to this
report.

Melanie Orhant
morhant@igc.org
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