CUNY sociology professor leads discussion on labor migration

Photo by Mike Williams

by Mike Williams

Immigrant workers have often been blamed for job shortages in America, dating back as far as the late 1800s.

Ruth Milkman, a distinguished professor of sociology at the City University of New York Graduate Center, argues that instead of blaming immigrants, we should be blaming the employers who hire them.

Milkman discussed the history and impact of global migrants and the United States labor market in her keynote address at the inaugural workshop of the Global Labor Immigration Network, which was hosted at the University of Maryland on April 20.

The Network is an “international and multidisciplinary group of scholars who are working on questions about political migration and labor and workers in the history and also today,” said Katarina Keane, the executive director of the Center for the History of the New America at this university.

Keane said the network is trying to bridge the gap between intellectual ideas and concrete action to help immigrant workers achieve fair treatment.

Milkman’s central argument revolved around deindustrialization, deunionization and deregulation. Each of these has pushed out American-born workers in lower and middle class sectors and invited immigrant laborers to take those jobs.

Deindustrialization is characterized by new technology reducing human positions and manufacturing moving from wealth countries to developing countries. Concerted attacks on labor unions by employers defined deunionization and drove out American workers from many jobs traditionally held by them.

The deregulation and privatization of markets allowed employers to create their own rules, which often were not in the best interest of American employees.

Milkman also discussed the impact of President Trump’s impact on immigrant labor, and argued that his comments about Muslims have deepened suspicions about all immigrant people, especially men.

“It’s true about African Americans too. The people who have fears of African Americans are directed at men,” Milkman said. “It is the same for immigrants and has big implications for the larger picture.”

According to Milkman, immigrant labor was (and still is) cheap and can often bypass many of the standards held by American workers and the regulations implemented by the government. Immigrant workers often work for independent contractors who develop stipulations for them and sell their work to other companies.

“There is a tremendous shift toward independent contracting,” said Milkman. “Employers don’t have to pay benefits or event the minimum wage…these workers have no protection under the laws that protect employees because they are not employees.“

There are even reported instances of employers actively recruiting foreign workers to come to the United States and fill low wage jobs. Most notably, Tyson Foods Inc., the meat production company, tried to bring illegal immigrants from Mexico to work in its processing plants.

It all comes back to the employers creating these problems. Milkman concluded by sharing her thoughts on the fine line that policy makers must balance between immigration reform and labor laws. The two often intersect, and there is always a group of people left unhappy, she said.

“The real need is to educate the public about the roots of the declining living standards of working people in this country,” Milkman said. “We also need to find ways to organize and support immigrant rights.”

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