The biggest challenge Central Americans living in the United States face is finding better working and living conditions than the ones in their home country. However, the lack of education and experience often leads them to the riskiest jobs, such as construction, cleaning windows of tall buildings, and being factory workers. In their journey to conquering a better lifestyle, Central American immigrants risk their lives working dangerous and low-paying jobs. Not only do Central Americans working in the U.S. get paid less than the average resident but they also work jobs that often lead to death. The informality of these jobs is what leads Central Americans to mental and physical health issues. This paper aims to show the mistreatment of Central American immigrant workers and how hard they work to accomplish a dream with an endless path.
A RISKY LIFE
By Joanna Guzman
During the 1980s, many Central Americans migrated to the United States not only to escape from the violence happening in their country but also for hope for a better future. Central American immigrants are taken advantage of by employers due to the lack of experience and extreme necessity; therefore, they are paid around the same as in their country or less. Many migrated to the United States thinking work conditions would be better than the ones from their home. However, to their surprise, the treatment and type of jobs were the same or worse. Are immigrants offered the same type of jobs in the United States as the ones they are offered in Central America? Most jobs offered to Central American immigrants are jobs that tend to lead to health issues like arthritis, lung disease, heat strokes, and other serious medical problems. Farm jobs are one of the most common jobs offered to immigrant workers but it is also one of the deadliest jobs. Immigrants work in farms on very hot days sometimes with no water or food in their body and collapse while working. In this ethnography, I want to examine these working conditions and the health effects these jobs have on Central American immigrants in the United States.
It is known that immigrants tend to work the jobs that Americans don’t want which are usually the toughest and riskiest ones. The reason for this is because Central Americans arrive to the United States with hardly any money, no family, little to no education, and often have no place to sleep. In addition to these difficulties, many jobs are considered informal employment which lead to health issues such as poor mental and physical health. While conducting my research I read a few articles that I will share with you later in this ethnography to familiarize you with this topic.
While asking tough questions to Central Americans I began to realize that talking about their lives brought back harsh and bitter memories. To understand more about labor among immigrants and really stand a day in their shoes I conducted an interview with my neighbor. Adolfo came from El Salvador to the United States in seek of a better future but finds himself struggling equally or more as in his country. He comes from a very small place called Los Caletones where he says he lived under cardboard boxes. Adolfo shared that he would walk 20 miles to catch a bus that would take him to his job where he sold bracelets for an old man for only four dollars a day. He says he decided to leave Los Caletones after a few earthquakes that kept destroying his home. “The hunger got stronger, my feet got weaker … man I just couldn’t walk anymore. I decided to take a few days off to save energy to cross to the United States, days off that turned into forever,” Adolfo said. We talked about El Salvador during his thirty minute lunch break at his construction job, breaking cement all day. We later continued our conversation for another thirty minutes at our apartment building but he cut it short as he said he was tired after working 13 hours under the sun. At first Adolfo was shy to speak but after I told him I understood his struggle because my grandma lives in a very poor place in El Salvador too, he started talking. My identity as a Central American individual helped me connect more with him as I have been to El Salvador in the last three months and I saw how bad the situation really is. As tears ran down Adolfo’s face full of dirt he shared his on- going journey as an immigrant worker.
“It’s tough working in the U.S when you don’t have papers. You can’t do anything. It’s like you’re a dead person that nobody knows about. You always have to be hiding. I am 22 years old and I have not rested since I turned 18. I know that here in the U.S. the law is for an employer to give you two days off but for us we only get Sundays off. Well even then I don’t get Sundays off because I have to work on side jobs to kind of survive in this hard world. I work seven days a week for 13 hours in construction under the sun or under the rain. I only get a 30-minute lunch break. I think I drink like four gallons of water a day to keep myself up.”
Usually the jobs that are offered to immigrants require little to no education. Jobs such as factory workers, dispatchers, janitors, gardeners, back house of restaurants, maids, construction workers, and the list can go on forever. Most employers take advantage of undocumented immigrants and pay them minimum wage or lower wages than citizens simply because they know immigrants need the money and can’t sue them. Adolfo continues…
“When I feel like I am getting sick, I drink any medicine you can think of. I can’t afford to get sick because one what doctor am I going to go to? I don’t have insurance, I don’t have money to pay a doctor and two I can’t afford to miss one day of work, if I do who is going to bring food to my table? After doing this construction job for so long your body starts to hurt, you know, your bones start to feel weak, your legs start feeling heavy, your back, your heart. I have arthritis problems when it gets cold I can’t even close my hands because they’re stuck. I cry, I cry a lot because the pain is so intense and there is nothing I can do about it. Imagine I live on my own with hand problems... pretty much picture yourself having no hands because I can’t cook like this, I can’t clean, I can’t do anything with my hands like that and my legs worn out. My eyes are getting watery just talking about this.”
For years it has been visible that immigrants tend to work jobs that U.S. born people do not want. The acceptance of these jobs begins with immigrants lacking education which means they don’t know what type of risks they run with certain jobs or don’t see the job as dangerous because of the risky lifestyle they have already been exposed to in their country. For instance, jobs like construction, field work, and window washers are jobs immigrants take because they do not require particular skills that come from education, but that is also why they tend to get hurt on the job. In the article, "Do immigrants work in riskier jobs?", Pia Orrenius and Madeline Zavodny talk about how some risky jobs have led immigrants to death. “
Two Ecuadorian brothers working in New York as window washers fell 47 stories when their scaffolding collapsed. Although only one of them died, the other one was severely injured. A migrant farm worker died of a heat stroke after picking tobacco in 110-degree weather in North Carolina. His internal body temperature was recorded at 108 degrees. A 14-year- old was partially decapitated by machinery in a plant in Tennessee”. These workers were most likely exhausted while working and didn’t have their entire mind focused on what they were doing which caused their death. As I told Adolfo about these stories he shared his work experience with me.
“There is a little bit of a difference between the type of work and the treatment here versus El Salvador. In El Salvador I had a boss that send me out with a fruit cart and bracelets. He never really pressured me... I think because he knew the struggle was real for all of us. He would pay me four dollars a day plus 20 percent of what I sold that day, but hey at least he would pay me the same day, not like this dude. I couldn’t work in construction over there because construction is like a profession you have to go to school and all that stuff for that. That’s why when I got the job as a construction worker here I was so happy because I felt like a professional until my boss treated me the way that he does. He doesn’t let me go home until the job is done and every five minutes he is checking up on me like "You need to move faster Adolfo, maybe this job isn’t for you Adolfo, maybe you should go back to El Salvador." You know he just likes putting me down because he is American.”
Although some people like Adolfo may have studied years in their country and have even graduated from a specific career, they often find those diplomas being worthless when they arrive to the United States. There are people who are highly educated, but knowing English becomes a barrier between them and stable jobs. In the article, "Assessing Human Capital Transferability into the U.S. Labor Market", Flores talks about how Central Americans come to the U.S. with higher education and have more knowledge in English than Mexicans. However, he says they both still earn the same amount of wages regardless of their higher education. “Immigrants who lack prior education in the United States and who come from developing countries where English is not the official language are less able to transfer education into the U.S. labor market.” Not only do people waste money in their home country but they also waste time trying to prosper for something that will not be considered in the states. According to a data report conducted by Lopez, Nicaraguans have more education than anyone in Central America and are most likely to obtain highly skilled jobs like accounting and administrative positions in the United States. However, the lack of education for other immigrants is what leads many people into hazardous, extremely tiring, and low paying jobs. Many immigrants work these types of jobs because it is the only thing they know how to do.
“In some way immigrants are offered the same jobs here as the ones in their country. Well I shouldn’t say offered because El Salvador is really poor, you don’t get offered jobs you create your own jobs. I do think we work the same type of jobs as in El Salvador though because you see only immigrants working fruit stands, selling flowers, selling clothes, food stands, that type of stuff and those are things you see in El Salvador. We choose those type of jobs because that’s what we know how to do. In the construction company don’t think I build apartments and bridges, no, I pick up like cement, built wooden stuff for the real engineers, drive trucks around no biggy. It is definitely hard and sad working both in the U.S. and in El Salvador the only difference is that in El Salvador your poor but happy here your poor and miserable.”
As Adolfo kept speaking I remember driving down MacArthur Park in Los Angeles and seeing many ladies and men selling flowers, food, and clothes. I also remembered going to El Mercado in El Salvador and seeing the same exact thing. I drew the connection that people work jobs they are familiarized with because many immigrants fear a lot of things, deportation being the biggest one, which is why they stay in their comfort zone.
If you have ever gone to a restaurant and the kitchen is visible to you, most of the cooks, dishwashers, and bus staff are Latinos running around working hard. However, have you ever seen a person who can potentially be undocumented taking your order or being your server? No? That is because they are part of the back house as restaurants call it... taking out the trash, mopping the floors, or cleaning the bathrooms. Today we see men cleaning as well, but years back it was considered a women’s job and men would be working on something different. Women are usually paid less than men because of the stereotype that women can’t do heavy lifting and long shifts like men can. The average undocumented women work in housekeeping, babysitting, or selling food which all falls under motherhood duties. In the Wall Street Journal article, "Even Leftists have Servants now", Kaufman shares stories about families living in Orange County who employ undocumented workers for low wages. Kaufman says that a house maid who is given food and a room earns around $150 a week but a house maid who speaks English and can drive earns $300. Kaufman gave an example of a housekeeper who said her employer expects her to work long hours for little pay. The housekeeper complained that her shift was only from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. but one night her bosses did not get home until 9 p.m. which caused her to miss the bus stop back home. In this article there was also a hospital executive who said she hired a Canadian instead of a Latina because she would have felt too guilty and exploitative hiring a Latina. Most of these people who hire undocumented workers pay them cash, do not give them health benefits, and avoid Social Security taxes which leads to an informal employment and poor health. As the interview with Adolfo went a little deeper he started talking about the holidays and how much he misses his family.
“I hate my boss; oh I hate him so much. You know he pays us whenever he feels like it. Like one day my rent was due so I went to his office and asked him in Spanish where is my money? All he said was I am busy right now come back tomorrow or whenever I have time. I can’t say anything to him because he’ll fire me, then where am I going to work? He pays all of us in the company cash we don’t have work benefits... are you kidding me? We don’t get paid holidays, vacations, none of that. For me it is a benefit to work during the holidays because I get paid and it helps distract me from my sadness that I am away from my family in El Salvador.”
Through the words of Adolfo, I learned that as immigrants Central American’s have to deal with tough jobs and get more physically and mentally drained than any other American employee. Adolfo as a Central American immigrant works 13 hours a day however, doesn’t get paid on time, does not have any benefits, and has to deal with emotional and physical pain. According to the article, "Better Jobs in Central America The Role of Human Capital,” workers in Central America are given severance pay once unemployed but in the United States they don’t even receive a thank you. “In Central America, one significant income protection mechanism, specifically for formal sector workers who lose their jobs, is in the form of severance pay, which varies between an average of 14.4 weeks (in Costa Rica) and 27 weeks of salary (in Guatemala) for workers with full time jobs that are laid off after at least 1 year of tenure.” Severance pay is only given in formal jobs like administrative work, doctors, lawyers, etc. not to people like Adolfo who worked selling bracelets. These high skilled jobs require education that many Central Americans do not have and that is because the poverty level in Central America is so high that people either go to school or work to survive. The article mentioned above also talks about children not wanting to invest into education because the low- skilled jobs in the United States are equal to the high-skilled jobs in Central America. Central American workers find themselves on a scale between finding themselves into society and creating a stable life for themselves and their families. The toughest thing for an immigrant worker is being unvalued by his or her employer. “Low returns to education for Central American immigrants in the U.S. create further disincentives to invest in education. Returns to education for Central American migrants may be low in the U.S. because of the low quality of education in Central America, or because incompatibilities in education systems mean that employers in the U.S. do not value the education immigrants have received in Central America.”
In conclusion, immigrant workers are the ones who rise status up for others while trying to raise their own. Central American immigrant workers are making the rich richer while the poor remains poor. The most important thing I found through conducting this research is that unconsciously society depends heavily on immigrant workers because they are the ones who do the jobs Americans do not want. Without immigrants we wouldn’t have smooth streets, we wouldn’t taste those great tacos or sizzling fajitas you order at restaurants. Without immigrant workers Americans would have to go to the field and pick out your own fruit and vegetables instead of just handing the cashier your money at the market. These workers hurt themselves and to some extent risk their lives so others can live their lives comfortably while theirs falls apart. Behind the beautiful cities and tasty food are workers who dream of paid holidays, vacations, being healthy and becoming citizens like many of us. Next time you buy a cup of fruit remember that your cup of fruit created two jobs. One, the worker who picked out that fruit from the field and two, the one standing in that hot summer day cutting and selling the fruit to you.
Flores, N. (2010).” Assessing Human Capital Transferability into the U.S. Labor Market Among Latino Immigrants to the United States”. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.
Kaufman, B. (1999). Domestic affairs: Even leftists have servants now --- hot economy, influx of jobless immigrants mean more household help for U.S. families. Wall Street Journal, B.1.
Lopez-Ruiz, M. , Benavides, M. , Artazcoz, L. , Martinez, J. , Rojas, M. , et al. (2015). “Informal Employment and Health Status in Central America”. BMC Public Health, 15, 698.
Orrenius, P. , & Zavodny, M. (2009). “Do Immigrants Work in Riskier Jobs?”. Demography (Pre-2011).
Sajitha Bashir, T. H. Gindling and Ana Maria Oviedo.(2012).”Better Jobs in Central America” The Role of Human Capital. Retrieved from World Bank Website: www.worldbank.org.