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U.S.: Arrests Highlight Plight Of Migrant Workers

  • Kathleen Moore

The recent arrest in the United States of immigrants employed illegally as cleaners -- many of them from Central and Eastern Europe -- has put the spotlight on illegal migrant workers. Thousands of them work in the shadows of the world's developed economies, often doing jobs shunned by natives. There's money in it for some. But it's a venture that can leave many vulnerable to exploitation.

Prague, 21 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Marek Hlubucek had always wanted to spend some time in the U.S. -- but as a 21-year-old he just didn't have the money for a long vacation there.

So when he saw an advertisement in a local Czech newspaper for jobs in the U.S., he responded right away. The agent promised -- for a fee -- to find him a job and accommodation, and Hlubucek and seven other Czechs with tourist visas were soon on a plane to New York.

"We handed the money over once we got to America and there was a guy waiting for us there who was meant to arrange the accommodation, the job and the social security [number]. He took $600 from every one of us and he only arranged our accommodation. We never saw him again after that," Hlubucek told RFE/RL.

It was a bad start, but Hlubucek eventually landed seasonal jobs fixing roofs. And though he says he went to the United States more for the adventure, the money wasn't bad either.

"Although I did work that for Americans is dirty work, work that they don't do anymore but that a lot of immigrants do, I made about $1,200 a month," he said. "Out of that I paid rent on a flat -- about $600, there were four of us, so $150 a month -- then $250 or $300 on food. So I had plenty of money -- well, maybe not plenty, when you're there you want to live and have fun and buy some things. But when you compare how it is here in the Czech Republic, here rent and food swallows up almost everything, whereas there I could still save something."

Hlubucek, who has since returned to the Czech Republic, is just one of the thousands of Central and Eastern Europeans who leave their countries each year to work illegally abroad. Some, like Hlubucek, travel on tourist visas. Others enter illegally and stay that way. Most often they land menial jobs without social benefits -- on farms, or as construction workers, restaurant staff, or cleaners.

Their plight was highlighted recently with the arrests of a group of migrants at several Wal-Mart stores in the U.S. The group -- many from the Czech Republic, Russia, and other Eastern European countries -- had been employed illegally as cleaners.

Given its clandestine nature, analysts say it's hard to put a figure on how many people may be involved in such illegal hires. But the best estimates speak of some 7 million illegal workers in the United States. Of these, only a fraction are from Central and Eastern Europe -- but thousands more people from the region work in other Western countries without proper papers.

Ryszard Piotrowicz is a migration expert at the University of Wales. He says Western Europe is the destination of choice for Central and Eastern European job seekers due to its close proximity. But as the Wal-Mart arrests show, many are also tempted by the lure of faraway America. "It remains a sort of dream, a target land for those people, they think there are fortunes or at least better lives to be found there," he said. "And I think there's a major attraction to go to the United States for that reason."

But as Hlubucek's story shows, dangers lurk in any of these workers' destinations -- unscrupulous middlemen, the threat of deportation, or worse. "They are underpaid very often, they're paid even less than they are led to believe they are going to get when they leave their country. Sometimes they go into the black economy and never come back out. Some of them end up in the sex trade," Piotrowicz said.

Muzaffar Chishti is a senior analyst at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington. He argues that illegal workers actually bring economic benefit to their host country. "It's clear we would not have so many people [working illegally] in the U.S. if they were not meeting an important labor-market need," he said. "It's increasingly clear that these are highly needed jobs for which U.S. workers are not available -- they're simply not interested in doing these jobs -- so I would have to say that [illegal workers] fill an extremely important niche in our labor market. What is problematic about it is that their status makes them extremely vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. And it also does not help society in general that they are in the underground economy and not in the mainstream."

That's something that earlier this month was even acknowledged by an unlikely migrants' champion -- Britain's Home Secretary David Blunkett. He said a "large proportion" of Britain's catering and hospitality industry is relying on clandestine employment. And he said the government is considering allowing some of Britain's hundreds of thousands of illegal workers the chance to become legal.

The U.S. had a similar amnesty in 1987, when around 3 million people who had spent some years in the U.S. were legalized. A new migration deal is now under discussion between the U.S. and Mexico, the country of origin for around half of the United States' illegal workers.

Chishti says there's an argument to go one step further and make it easier for migrants to get legal work right away. "People are saying that what we did in 1987 was right but it was obviously not responsive to the future needs of the labor market, because we once again ended up in the same situation we were in in 1987," he said. "So there's much more receptivity in the debate now that, along with the legalization program, we should have a mechanism that would allow for legal flows of this kind of population in the future. This would essentially mean making [our] immigration system a little more dynamic, or a bit more responsive to the dynamics of the labor market, whereby people would be able to come in as temporary workers and if they worked in their job for a period of time that would allow them to earn their way into being legalized."

In the meantime, many migrants will take their chances and travel with only promises or hopes of finding a job. Hlubucek hasn't been back to the U.S. himself. But he says there are plenty in his hometown who have gone there to work -- some, he said, "go time after time."