Hiring illegal aliens cheats Hawaii workers and hurts state
The news media have covered several incidents in which illegal aliens were arrested at Hawaii job sites. Hopefully, this coverage will continue and focus on not just the presence of undocumented workers but those who hire them, since illegal employment is the reason they are here.
There is a very real threat posed by unscrupulous developers and contractors who use illegal immigrant labor. This threat needs to be addressed. In times of a shrinking economy when we are seeing a large percentage of local workers unemployed, the hiring of illegal workers is especially reprehensible.
The history of Hawaii's labor movement is a rich tradition of equality and social justice driven by a diverse collection of ethnic minorities. When looking at the current ranks of Hawaii's construction unions, the majority of their memberships reflect people of color -- Hawaiians, Samoans, Filipinos, Japanese, Chinese and Mexicans alike. The issue is not immigrants but renegade developers and contractors who come from outside of Hawaii or the United States and ignore the longstanding sense of fair play to which most in the local industry subscribe.
When unethical operators cut corners, they do more than hurt local workers who have spent years undergoing rigorous job skills and safety training to qualify for the exclusive status of journey worker. Cheating Hawaii workers also cheats local consumers. The luxury buildings constructed by cheap illegal labor are invariably substandard in quality and often pose safety hazards, yet their unsuspecting owners pay top dollar for them.
This phenomenon also damages Hawaii's economy. By driving labor costs down while increasing profits margins for themselves, contractors who exploit illegal immigrants are taking money they don't deserve away from workers and gouging consumers. This drain of revenue from thousands of workers and consumers into the pockets of a few contractors leaves less money for those who buy and build homes to purchase goods and services in the community.
Illegal workers who lack the extensive safety training, such as that provided by trade unions, also create hazards to their fellow workers and the general public. Recall the piece of rebar that fell 17 floors at The Pinnacle in downtown Honolulu and plunged through the rear window of a car, narrowly missing the occupants. The Pinnacle was cited for hiring undocumented workers.
For the sake of fair play, consumer protection and safety, the issue of illegal aliens in Hawaii workplaces needs to be addressed. Whether it's the illegal employees of Shirokiya's food vendor, restaurants on Maui where 22 illegal workers were arrested or The Pinnacle condominium in downtown Honolulu, there is clearly a trend among unethical employers to cut their costs by hiring cheap and easily exploitable illegal labor.
No one should blame the desperate people who are taken advantage of to save unscrupulous companies a buck. They are as much victims as the Hawaii workers they displace. But without immigration policies and programs that enable unskilled workers to come in to fill periodic shortages and return home when finished, we must continue to protect jobs badly needed by our own citizens and legal immigrants.
Until the government develops a comprehensive immigration and guest worker program other measures will be required at the state and federal level to protect American jobs. New federal rules require contractors working on U.S. government projects to certify that their workers are eligible to work in the United States.
This is a start. We believe this should be expanded by the Hawaii Legislature to ensure that all workers on state projects meet the same eligibility standards. Other measures should include requirements that all employers, not just those working on projects involving state funds, keep better documentation on the employees on their payrolls. And there should be meaningful penalties for those who fail to comply.
Hawaii's prepaid medical system depends on all employers paying their fair share. But by using cash payments to illegal workers to avoid reporting, rogue contractors are cheating the system by not paying medical benefits, forcing others to pick up the tab.
To ensure a level playing field, all contractors must play by the rules. The laws in place are there to protect everyone: ethical contractors and developers, workers and consumers alike. We must ensure our laws are enforced and that any loopholes that exist are closed. There's too much at stake to allow cheaters to flourish at the expense of everyone else.
Kyle Chock is the executive director of the Pacific Resource Partnership, the joint market recovery program of Hawaii's unionized contractors and the Hawaii Carpenters Union.