Home & Garden

About the House: Slavery Lite

By Matt Cantor
Wednesday December 17, 2008 - 07:12:00 PM

I recently received a letter from a reader (Let’s call him PR) about his experiences with a local contractor and his illegal help. His concern, which is to be commended, is in regards to the pay and working conditions afforded his helper, whom he pseudonymously called Gem (presumably his feelings about the worker, which he effused copiously in a letter which is too long to include herein). 

Gem was left on site to do most of the work, according to PR and was being paid “pennies above minimum wage.” Current California minimum wage is set at $8 an hour and is almost $10 in San Francisco, which, like many jurisdictions, can set their own amount as long as it’s above the U.S. level of $6.55 (due to increase to $7.25 next July). 

Actually, according to PR, Gem is not in this country legally and, should officials become involved, would probably be deported. This raises serious questions about the legal pay requirements of the individual that I cannot answer. What I can say is that contractors, licensed or otherwise (according to PR, the “contractor” is not licensed), like all employers (short term or longer) are required to withhold tax and to file certain employment documents for all workers who are not simply “day labor.” Day labor designations are designed to cover up to several hundred dollars to one person in the course of a year and are capped to prevent this designation from being used for other than very short-term employment. 

One of the requirements for contractors of many kinds is Workman’s Compensation and, again, an illegal alien has no rights that I am aware of to collect from this fund. Further, most illegals would rather receive their fully untaxed wages and have no withholdings at all, preferring to fly under the radar. 

These circumstances mean that many day laborers get hurt and have no recourse. There are also many deaths each year that go uncompensated as a result. 

This conspiracy, of sorts, puts everyone at risk but has become the common specie of the trades. My friend Harold, a brilliant and hardworking ecologist, landscaper and philosopher, aptly calls this whole constellation of issues “Slavery Lite.” 

The contractor, according to PR (I keep saying this because it’s all second hand and much of what he has surmised is unverified, making the depth of the well of untruth hard to plumb), is making “upwards of 50 percent” of Gem’s wages. So, perhaps we’re talking about $15 an hour being charged for the worker. While this may seem grossly unfair, I have trouble arriving at that conclusion based on wage distribution alone.  

As a recovering contractor and one who worked with fully taxed as well as casual labor over the years, I can tell you that by the time you finish paying all your bills, it’s very hard to have made any money at all if you don’t charge the client substantially beyond the laborer’s wage. The number of items that go into this calculation is often beyond the awareness of all but the best contractors but trust me when I say it’s true. It’s the same as our home budgets and some of us, on our grouchier days might term it the death by a thousand cuts. That said, one would need to take a very close look at the workings of the contractor’s operation to ascertain the level of misfeasance. 

If you are actually paying only $15 an hour (or close to it), you’re getting a bargain (albeit a bargain with the devil since you’re also de facto hiring an illegal, as well as working with an unlicensed contractor). 

If the contractor were to charge an additional $3-4 per hour over Gem’s wages, I can be sure that within a few accounting cycles he would find that he was losing money so this shouldn’t be your focus. Furthermore, to assume that Gem sans the contractor could provide you with the same end product may be false.  

However unscrupulous the contractor may be, they may be bringing many things to the table, including the right tools, transportation, planning, knowledge, training for the worker, knowing what to buy and actually doing it. Knowing what they can and cannot do according to codes and other local rules is another thing the contractor may bring to the workbench. 

I don’t know the skill level of your contractor or of Gem but it is common for leadership to provide much to make themselves essential. 

Gem claimed to have been kept, for most of a year, in “quasi-bondage” (obviously PR’s terminology) through a “combination of vague inducements, threats, and by partial and delayed payments in “installments” for his labor.” True or not, in this case, it is a sad reality for some of our national day labor force. 

Now, there’s a lot of hearsay on which to attempt to base an opinion here, but even assuming that this laborer is giving a fair representation of his circumstances, one wonders why Gem would stay with this contractor for the better part of a year, as has been claimed. While many illegals are hungry to work as much as possible, there is a very active marketplace for hardworking, capable day laborers and, were he to feel threatened, he could certainly head back to the street to get picked up at any one of the many “slavery lite” venues readily visible within a block of so many of our local lumber yards (it’s a wonder that the INS doesn’t have offices across the street from every Home Depot). 

PR, by participating in hiring either Gem or the contractor, you are participating in the propagation of these circumstances. If you want to help Gem become legal, that would be great but it won’t be easy. There are also about 12 million Gems out there (57 percent being Mexican according to the Pew Hispanic Center). Write your congressperson and demand fair employment and basic services for everyone here illegally OR demand that the U.S. and Mexico establish basic human rights and minimum wages on both sides of the border.  

Then, all the Gems will be able to choose what circumstances they want to work under and can more easily leave an abusive situation. NAFTA has been very good for big business but not very good for the hombre on the street, as you can see. 

I’ll climb down from the soap-box for a minute to address a last issue brought forth by PR, that being a matter of undisclosed mark-up. Marking up materials within reason and by agreement is perfectly fine. In fact, if the contractor gets a discount at the store, that’s his to pocket and is not required to share it. If the contractor is charging for things he didn’t buy or marking up beyond the price you would pay at the store, he needs to tell you. If he didn’t, I would bring it up in a non-hostile manner and see if you can get the money back. 

Frankly, I am more concerned that you are not getting minimally acceptable construction performed than that you may be overpaying. The latter seems unlikely and I very much doubt that this contractor (if we may stretch the fabric of reality to call him such) is making a lot of money. 

I don’t blame PR for trying to save money or for wanting to go to bat for an illegal laborer off the street. I am concerned, though, that there are legal, licensed contractors employing legal, insured, tax-paying workers who are displaced through this process.  

These latter ones cost more and come with substantially more accountability for PR, who is concerned about his recourse with Gem’s employer (there is very little and if he calls the IRS (another of his questions), he may be in trouble for having illegals working for him, despite the contractor’s involvement. Additionally, working with an unlicensed contractor may mean that if someone gets hurt, he may get sued as the nearby deep pocket. 

Don’t get me wrong. I’m certainly not finding fault with PR. There are many among us who have made all these same choices. Certainly, I think we’re dealing with a contractor who should be forced to hire legal people at a living wage, protect them with insurance and withhold taxes. It’s too bad.  

Most people have no idea how widespread this is. If you want some idea, park where you can watch the labor pool on the street some morning and watch the trucks pick up men for a few hours. It’s a sizeable percentage of the work in every major city. 

To PR, here’s my suggestion. Don’t hire the contractor again. Hire a licensed, well-reputed one who comes with references. Say goodbye to any money you think you may have overpaid and, as my mother would say, don’t send any more good after the bad. Have Gem over to dinner and find out his situation. See if you can help him without hiring him illegally. Talk to the INS about how to help someone get a green card and seek work in the U.S., naming no names, of course. You wouldn’t want them digging up your Gem.