Toil and trouble

For all the political bluster about how illegal labor hurts Americans and the economy, it’s extremely easy for undocumented workers to become victims in the employment system they’re supposedly milking. Think about it—to whom can they complain?

Tim Freilich, legal director of the Virginia Justice Center, one of the only organizations that represents illegal workers on wage and other employment issues, says, “The biggest problem that we see are employers who will seek out undocumented workers because they think they can exploit their labor. That is…because of unfamiliarity with the language or legal system, that they won’t complain if they’re not paid properly.”

Freilich says he’s worked on a couple of cases locally where employers tried to pay less than minimum wage, and though he wouldn’t divulge details, he did confirm that the stereotypical industries one might expect to utilize illegal labor do: construction, food service and seasonal labor.

After this useful conversation, however, our research team seemed to hit a wall. With a lack of Spanish-speaking skills, and a population that had a lot to lose by talking to us, we weren’t able to get down to dollars and cents with any immigrants themselves.

The few employers who were willing to talk seemed to have nothing to hide—$10 an hour is the going rate for under-the-table restaurant work. The vineyard and winery crowd insisted that they kept workers season-after-season, and thus, paid and treated them very fairly. And housekeepers and gardeners, also paid under the table, seem to do pretty well based on rates of pay reported by several folks who have hired such labor.

Could it be that off-the-radar labor actually isn’t such a bad gig around here? We think not. Take, for example, Freilich’s horror story of a Virginia employer who hired Spanish-speaking workers for a day and handed them their checks with “VOID” written in the subject line—the workers couldn’t read it anyway.

Though it may be an outlying figure, $0/hr is a pretty rotten rate. With more time, trust and language skills, we’re sure we’d find that the median pay rate for illegal immigrants would show they’re not exactly making a killing.
Under-the-table restaurant work: $10/hr
This price seems pretty universal, from deli labor to restaurant labor, from a couple of different sources around town. The laborers aren’t necessarily undocumented, but they are paid under the table.

Housecleaning: $55-$60 for surface cleaning
This price was quoted at a medium-sized city house occupied by several male tenants. They said their maid didn’t do a great job, but compared to other undocumented houseworkers, the price was a value.

$90 without linens/$120 for everything
This is for a medium-sized, family-occupied home in the city, according to the homeowner who hired the labor.

$100 for large, family-occupied home in the suburbs, according to a prison source.

Yard work: $200-$300
Yard work seems to be substantially more expensive than housework. One source said yard work went for $200 per day, another paid $300 for mulching, weeding, trimming, edging and lawn mowing.

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