Sunday, August 21, 2011

On the Abuse of Undocumented Workers

Both progressives and conservatives acknowledge the troubling abuse of undocumented workers. The most jarring example is the Postville Kosher Slaughterhouse, in which investigators uncovered wretched working conditions, the use of child labor and a violation of a host of other regulations. And on a broader level, the endemic use of undocumented labor has contributed to the erosion of wages and working conditions. However, both sides present markedly different solutions. Progressives generally hold that the proper response is to "bring undocumented workers out of the shadows," through amnesty, unionization and the enforcement of wage and work place regulations. According to this vision, by improving working conditions for undocumented workers, they will help bolster conditions for all workers. This is seen in the AFL-CIO's establishment of a partnership with the National Day Labor Organizing Network, which is a sharp departure from their historic inclination towards restrictive immigration policies. While the progressive approach is intuitively appealing, many conservatives believe that is it fundamentally flawed because it fails to consider several important economic principles. Employers are attracted to undocumented labor precisely because they offer a respite from costly tax, wage and workplace regulation. If the employers were forced to apply the said standards to their undocumented or newly legalized employees, the said workers would lose the allure that they formerly held. Given basic laws of economics, we can be certain that a new black market would form in which many undocumented workers would choose to accept lower wages and working standards in order to gain a competitive advantage over their unionized counterparts. And naturally, many employers would happily oblige them. Thus, many conservatives are of the opinion that by its very nature, the conditions of the undocumented labor market cannot be substantially improved. Expanding regulations to cover undocumented workers would do little to improve their aggregate circumstances. Rather, they hold that the most effective remedy to abusive labor practices would be to dry up the demand for undocumented labor by heavily fining the employers who utilize them. And diminishing the key magnet (employment opportunities) that draws in undocumented immigrants is also a vastly more humane enforcement strategy than haranguing the immigrants themselves. Progressives may even learn one of the basic principles of economics: the working man has no better friend than a tight labor market, it is far more effective than government regulation in improving wages and working conditions.

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