Our Slave Labor in California, Iraq

Lettuce have your huddled masses: Work force becomes truly globalized.

Beset by an immigration war on one front and just plain war on another front, government officials in the U.S. are frantically seeking more illegals for necessary farm work here and longer stays in Baghdad for shanghaied foreigners to build the unnecessary supermax American embassy.

As Nicole Gaouette of the Los Angeles Times reported yesterday,

With a nationwide farmworker shortage threatening to leave unharvested fruits and vegetables rotting in fields, the Bush administration has begun quietly rewriting federal regulations to eliminate barriers that restrict how foreign laborers can legally be brought into the country.

The effort, urgently underway at the departments of Homeland Security, State and Labor, is meant to rescue farm owners caught in a vise between a complex process to hire legal guest workers and stepped-up enforcement that has reduced the number of illegal planters, pickers and middle managers crossing the border.

Meanwhile in Baghdad, workers from the Philippines and other countries who were shanghaied by U.S.-hired contractors to build the supermax U.S. embassy will probably be roped into staying longer as that project falls behind and its cost soars toward $1 billion. Check out the testimony at intrepid California congressman Henry Waxman's July hearing for details on the shanghai gestures.

Without addressing the issue of the original trickery that landed many of those foreign workers in Baghdad against their will, Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post reported yesterday:

The embassy, which will be the largest U.S. diplomatic mission in the world, was budgeted at $592 million. The core project was supposed to have been completed by last month, but the timetable has slipped so much that the State Department has sought and received permission from the Iraqi government to allow about 2,000 non-Iraqi construction employees to stay in the country until March.

As I wrote on August 8:

Shanghaied to build to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Working on the construction site without safety equipment — or even shoes. The story of the alleged kidnapping of Filipino workers who thought they were going to Dubai but instead were flown to Baghdad to help build the $500 million embassy is stunning.

That story was broken by others, including David Phinney of Inter Press Service in June, who noted that contractor First Kuwaiti has reaped $2 billion from U.S. taxpayers for construction of military camps and the embassy. Phinney wrote:

Because of allegations of labour trafficking and other abuses, First Kuwaiti is also being investigated by the U.S. Justice Department, an action precipitated by U.S. citizens claiming that company workers loaded onto planes in Kuwait were handed boarding passes for Dubai before flying directly to Baghdad. The passengers were mostly low-wage Asian migrant labourers earning as little as 250 dollars a month.

Wait a sec. As Phinney also notes, Filipino laborers at the new embassy are making much more than that:

The agreement also lays out salary: 346 dollars a month for eight-hour days, seven days a week, plus 104 dollars a month for mandatory two hours overtime every day.

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Pay is marginally better in our fields. Gaouette's Times story mentions almost by the way that "almost three-quarters of farmworkers are thought to be illegal immigrants."

The percentage of people who mow our lawns is probably even higher, but anyway, Gaouette notes that the White House is extremely concerned about this aspect of the free-market economy:

"It is important for the farm sector to have access to labor to stay competitive," said White House spokesman Scott Stanzel. "As the southern border has tightened, some producers have a more difficult time finding a workforce, and that is a factor of what is going on today."

The push to speedily rewrite the regulations is also the Bush administration's attempt to step into a breach left when Congress did not pass an immigration overhaul in June that might have helped American farms.

These are truly salad days for government officials in the U.S. as they quietly chew on these labor-force problems. Gaouette noted:

The administration has pursued the project discreetly. The issue of immigration has generated friction between President Bush and the conservative wing of the Republican Party, which has strongly opposed many of the initiatives that Bush has pursued.

Pursued not for the sake of the workers but of the corporate farms that depend on cheap labor.

Slave work in Baghdad or California — take your pick. Farmworkers don't get health benefits, and the embassy is going to have a full-time psychiatrist for counseling and drugs, so Iraq seems the better bet: At least your boss in Iraq will be medicated.

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