IT IS FASHIONABLE these days to rail against government interference in business and to enjoin the nation's displaced workers to adjust to the new realities of the labor market. A recent two-part series in The Wall Street Journal provides a timely reminder of how ugly those realities can be.
The reporter, George Getschow, spent four months investigating and working in the day-labor pools operated in cities throughout the country and in Gulf Coast labor camps providing unskilled workers to offshore drilling rigs. The severity and duration of the recent recession has swelled the population of these camps and labor pools and brought a new type of person--formerly skilled workers with families to support--to labor beside the more typical assortment of drifters, drunks and fugitives. The condition of these laborers, as reported by Mr. Getschow, violates not only every labor standard on the books, but every standard of human decency.
Like their rural counterparts, the migrant workers, the urban day laborers and labor camp residents are trapped in their dilemma by fear, desperation and the indifference of local authorities and the general public. The operators of these outfits hold their workers by threats of "blackballing" or even physical intimidation for troublemakers, and by entrapping the workers into debts larger than their accumulated pay.
The workers typically earn the minimum wage of $3.35 an hour, although the camp and pool operators may collect several times that amount from the firms that contract for their labor. But the worker rarely sees much of even that low wage as a result of "deductions" for food, work clothes and locker rentals, up-front fees for subsequent work guarantees and the cost of filthy lodging. A man may work for weeks to "earn" over $1,000 and end up with less than $50--or even nothing--to show for it.
The system is not without its beneficiaries. The companies that contract for the laborers on a no- questions-asked basis like having a ready source of cheap labor to do the dirty work--such as cleaning up hazardous chemicals or radioactive waste, dishwashing or strikebreaking--that they can't get their regular employees to do. The unions don't get involved because their members don't want the work and organizing a group of terrified workers isn't easy. And, of course, the business turns a tidy profit for the owners of the labor pools and camps.
The most discouraging aspect may be that these owners are often pillars of their local communities. They include businessmen, local politicians, members of local boards, doctors and even a churchman or two. They prefer not to discuss their line of work too much, but some will defend it as providing shelter and rehabilitative employment for the workers and useful services for the society. This country, however, is not so poor that it needs to depend on exploitation for its services. And it should not be so callous as to consign the victims of industrial change to the junk heaps of the labor market.