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Jewish World Review
August 21, 2009
24 Menachem-Av 5769
Cheating the Least Among Us
WILLIAMSBURG, Va. Colonial Williamsburg is proud of its
tradesmen. You can see the carpenters walking out of the history books and
down the cobblestone streets, ready to talk to visitors about how they
hammered Williamsburg together, log by log, shingle by shingle, as if still
in the 18th century.
These tradesmen built new homes, smokehouses, dairies, barns.
They built additions and repaired old structures. Some were skilled
carpenters and bricklayers, others were just learning, but together they
raised rafters and roof beams, set door frames, laid floors with timber cut
from nearby trees.
The colonial wages were paid to the original Williamsburg
tradesmen in Spanish-milled dollars and doubloons (worth about $16). Money
was minted in Mexico and called "pillar dollars" because of its image of two
pillars flanking two globes reflecting the colonial version of a global
But all that was a long time ago. Today, the picture for
laborers who aren't in 18th century costume tells a different story. Many
arrive from Mexico without money of any kind. Immigrants from Mexico,
Central and South America are often the last hired and the most abused and
exploited. Their daily pay is the equivalent to what a "pillar dollar" would
be worth today.
In a boom economy, the rich like Bernie Madoff exploit
the rich. Hurt hardest in the current recession are the illegal immigrants,
mostly from Mexico, who are sometimes paid with checks that bounce. Their
employers figure they won't complain because they're illegal and are afraid
of being sent home. With many Americans and workers with green cards joining
the ranks of the unemployed, such victims don't garner a lot of sympathy,
but the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot uncovered a nest of nasty contractors taking
cruel advantage during the recession of those at the bottom of the economic
ladder penny-ante Bernie Madoffs trading in human labor.
No matter what you think about illegal immigration, a scam is a
scam. It lowers the morale of workers and the state of workmanship. "At the
end of the day, any human being who works is entitled to pay, regardless
whether they're documented or not," says Myra Creed, chairwoman of the
Hispanic Advisory Committee in Newport News, Va.
Who can argue with that? In Washington and the suburbs, day
workers line up for work on street corners, waiting for contractors to
collect them for delivery to a day's work. It's a legitimate custom, and the
employers are easy to identify. But in these parts of Virginia, hungry
immigrants hear about jobs through informal networks spread by word of
mouth. The vulnerable become even more vulnerable. Workers who threaten to
report employers for cheating them say they're threatened with exposure,
reported as illegal as though their status were unknown to the employers who
Typical is Edgar Cardenos, an illegal immigrant from Nicaragua
who has been in this country for eight years. His wife is pregnant with
their second daughter, who will, of course, be an American citizen by virtue
of birth. He heard about an Outback Steakhouse in the neighborhood that was
paying $15 to build an addition to the building. He hurried to the parking
lot of the restaurant, saw a crew of men putting up dry wall, spackling
seams, creating a new ceiling and installing exterior siding. He was told he
could join them at $15 an hour. He put in two weeks' work and received a
check for one week. The contractor promised the rest later. The first check
bounced, the next one never arrived. The initial contractor said he hired a
subcontractor and paid off at his end. He was two steps away from the crime.
The subcontractor disappeared. Such employers are twice guilty first for
hiring illegals and then for cheating them of their pay.
This isn't a high-bucks Ponzi scheme, but low life cheating of
human labor. Wendy Inge, director of the Virginia Department of Labor and
Industry, told the Virginian-Pilot that when a worker complains, no one
investigates his immigration status. Nevertheless, cheated laborers are
afraid to complain lest they be sent home.
Cardenos has now applied for an income tax ID, though zero times
zero, as any child learning his multiplication tables can tell you, is still
zero. Cardenos does the kind of low-wage work that even in these tough times
others don't want to do. He now works at two painting jobs, putting in 16
hours a day.
"It's very difficult to (work) where you don't get paid," says
Cardenos. "I have a family to take care of."
Life is not fair we all know that. Bernie Madoff is living
the prison life, leaving his wife to survive on $6 million. But the
recession is "unfairer" to some than to others.
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