Real Issue Behind Immigration: Corporate Race to the Bottom

| by AFL-CIO

The ongoing debate about immigration never seems to effectively address the real problem-our collective national addiction to cheap labor and low wages, says Mark Ayers, president of the AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades Department (BCTD).

In a column on BCTD’s website, Ayers says the enactment of Arizona’s anti-immigrant law has revived efforts to pass comprehensive immigration reform at the national level. But before Congress rushes to pass immigration legislation, it must take into account that “in America today, it’s all about next quarter’s profits and the bottom line.”

While exploitative businesses and their apologists hide behind empty slogans like “free markets,” we know the only freedom they are fighting for is the freedom to exploit workers, steal wages and cut corners.


Ayers points out that certain industries, such as construction, rely heavily on undocumented labor. In recent years, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, undocumented workers accounted for as much as 25 percent of  the entire U.S. construction workforce. And in the residential construction sector, that number is even higher.

The construction industry’s business model is a “race to the bottom” predicated on exploitation of undocumented workers, Ayers says. That model has devastated construction workers’ wages. In fact, Ayers says, real wages for construction workers were 17 percent lower in 2006 than in 1973, adjusted for inflation.

Even when contractors are making money, workers are not seeing the gains. According to the federal government’s economic census, contractors’ profits grew between 1977 and 2002. However, the proportion of construction receipts spent for payroll and benefits actually declined by almost 14 percent during the same period, Ayers says.

With those types of statistics in mind, he says: 

it is simply idiotic for us, as a nation, to pass law after law-like the one in Arizona-and arrest someone with brown skin who can’t produce an ID when we don’t have the sense or the courage to address the real issue-companies maximizing profits at the expense of workers, using a business model that relies on the lowering of standards and wages industry-wide by exploiting a workforce without the legal standing to demand justice.

Instead of demagoguery and divisiveness, we need comprehensive immigration reform that stops this exploitation. America’s building trades unions and this great country were built by immigrants seeking a better life for themselves and their families. Whether it’s a temporary worker program that denies full rights and wages to those working in this country or the “Show Me Your Papers” law, anytime we treat immigrants like second-class citizens, we undermine our core values as Americans, and undermine the American Dream for all of us.

Click here to read the full column: “The 800 Pound Gorilla That Sits in the Middle of Arizona.”