Thursday, November 10, 2016

Illuminating the Hidden: The Socio-Economic Impact of Invisible Work

The United States has always had a complicated relationship with immigrants. The nation’s expansion and economic power are due in large part to constant streams of immigrants, both legal and illegal, yet there is a tendency for Americans to blame the newcomers for economic and social woes. Much of the United States’ early economy was dependent on cheap labor, in particular, the forcibly immigrated African slaves. When slavery became prohibited, many slaves found themselves in similar conditions as sharecroppers; still providing the economically advantaged with cheap labor. When the United States began its westward expansion, many blacks were hired to work the railways and were joined by Irish and Chinese immigrants, who were considered to be nearly as undesirable as blacks. They were paid less than American workers, lived apart from other Americans, and were hired to do the menial and difficult work that Americans preferred to avoid. In the 20th century, due to employment and work condition reform, most Americans found themselves able to work forty hour work weeks, in safe conditions, receiving a guaranteed minimum wage. Not so for immigrant workers, who often worked in sectors which were not regulated, such as agriculture and meatpacking. The 20th century, especially after World War II, also saw a rise in domestic service among the middle and upper class. These workers were often women of color. The common thread through these immigrant workers, from slaves to illegal Latino immigrants, is that they have contributed significantly to the American economy by doing work that most will not do, and that many do not think about or acknowledge – they do invisible work. Janitors, maids, and landscapers perform their duties surrounded by people who speak and act as if they are not present. Like the Untouchables of the Hindi caste system, illegal immigrants perform the invisible work needed by society. They do so because it is the best opportunity they can attain and they are rewarded for their contributions with discrimination and exploitation.

Describing the work done by illegal immigrants as invisible work is a recent phenomenon. Devault explains that the concept of invisible work originated in the 1970s as a means of “bringing women’s work more fully into view,” as part of an “era of interrelated ‘social justice projects’ that have continued to percolate since then” (2014:777). Recently, the term has expanded and now applies to much of the work that people of color perform as well as the work of the illegal immigrant. The term has two-fold meaning for illegal immigrants who perform traditionally invisible servile work, but are also invisible in their more skilled employment since they must do their legitimate work illegally. Sociologists study invisible work as it pertains to the efforts taken to “achieve and maintain full membership in the society” in which they operate (Devault 2014: 777). Illegal immigrants perform these duties because it is the only option they have to provide for their families and potentially operate as an equal in America.

Some academics prefer to call the invisible work done by immigrants “brown collar” because undocumented workers “cluster into low-wage, low-level service industries such as landscaping, farm work, and painting” (Hipolito 2010:68). Illegal immigrants may also be found in the service industry as domestic staff, where they fulfill the same invisible work that women of color often perform. Undocumented workers also work in more skilled capacities such as mechanics and construction workers but do so as an open secret, hidden as contractors and day laborers.

This skilled work done by illegal immigrants is part of an informal economy which is described by Webb, et al, as “the set of illegal yet legitimate activities through which actors recognize and exploit activities” (2009:492). A primary of example of this is in construction where an entrepreneur utilizes undocumented workers (an illegal means) to “produce legal, legitimate products” such as homes and commercial buildings (Webb et. al, 2009:496). The benefit to the entrepreneur is that undocumented workers “provide services similar to those of documented workers, they may be willing to accept lower wages and work without benefits” (Webb et. al, 2009:496). The benefit to the consumer is a reduced cost in their product which allows for greater purchasing power or reduced overhead. This scenario is not rare or isolated, it is estimated that the informal economy accounts for “approximately 17 percent of gross domestic product in developed countries” (Webb et. al, 2009:493).

In the United States, much of the informal economy is reliant on the existence of illegal immigrants who are willing to “hold positions in the labor force that U.S. citizens are unwilling to do, despite high levels of unemployment” (Furman et al 2012:1). Some industries are particularly reliant upon this illegal labor force. Much of the agricultural, construction, and meatpacking work done in this country is performed by “day and migrant labor” (Furman et. al, 2012:1). The work that undocumented workers perform is often physically demanding and dangerous, “with one in five suffering a work-related injury and more than half not receiving medical care for the injury” (Furman et al 2012:5). The conditions of their employment are equally disadvantageous, with many experiencing “wage theft, and almost 50 percent of [surveyed undocumented workers] stated that they had been denied access to water or bathroom breaks while on the job” (Furman et al 2012:5). These workers have little recourse against such basic violations of workplace ethics since they cannot rely on the law to protect them for fear of arrest and deportation, and are unlikely to remediate their situation by finding other employment because the practice is widespread.

Businesses do not passively wait for illegal immigrants to apply for work. Employers intentionally recruit and assemble brown collar work forces because undocumented workers are vulnerable and “more likely to be subservient than native citizens” (Hipolito 2010:74). Since these undocumented workers fear deportation they are “beholden to the employer” (Hipolito 2010:68) and lack the bargaining power to receive just compensation or address working conditions. Employers who hire undocumented workers often “subject these immigrant to employment violations and reduced wages, which ultimately degrades the job for documented workers as well” (Hipolito 2010:68). This allows the employer to produce a product or sell a service at lower costs than competitors “who do not engage in similar exploitation” (Hipolito 2010:68). Thus, employers are well served by hiring illegal immigrants because the reduced cost of labor, benefits, and basic employee rights lowers costs overall and increases profit. While the employers knowingly and willingly defy immigration law, just as the immigrant does, they are not equally punished for their transgressions. Congress and the courts effectively ignore “ignore that many employers intentionally hire undocumented immigrants to exploit their vulnerabilities stemming from their immigration status” and “focus on the undocumented worker” (Hipolito 2010:73). The fines for hiring illegal immigrants do not negate the cost benefit of hiring them in the first place, so that even when punished, most employers merely continue to conduct business. The undocumented worker, however, faces imprisonment, deportation, loss of wages, and all of the consequences thereof.

The benefits of a subservient and low paid workforce applies to all sectors of the economy, even the highly profitable tech sector. While prominent Silicon Valley companies report record profits and share that wealth with their employees, they do so in part by contracting many of their operational services to companies that overwhelmingly hire illegal immigrants and African Americans. These contractors directly contribute to the corporate climate and functionality of these tech firms by working as “janitors, security guards, shuttle drivers, landscape workers, cafeteria workers” and other positions which endure “low wages and insecure working conditions” (Benner & Neering 2016:3). Benner and Neering admit that studying this invisible workforce is difficult, “given the lack of direct data on the nature of employment contracts,” but have utilized indirect methodology to estimate “a good picture of the demographic characteristics, wages, and socio-economic circumstances of this population” (2016:3). There is an estimated “19,000-39,000 people in low and medium wage occupations who contract directly with high-tech firms in the valley,” who work not only in service and blue-collar occupations, but include many white-collar occupations as well such as “secretaries, sales representatives, couriers and messengers,” and are “disproportionately people of color” who are paid less than 70% of what “comparable direct-hire employees of high tech firms earn” (Benner & Neering 2016:3). This disparity in pay results in approximately 18% of these workers earning “below 200% of the Federal Poverty Level – despite working an average of 39 hours a week” (Benner & Neering 2016:6). Due in part to the high cost of living in Silicon Valley, these contract workers face “substantially worse socio-economic conditions and housing circumstances along a wide-range of measures, including ability to own versus rent, levels of over-crowding, dependence on public assistance, access to health insurance, and overall poverty levels” (Benner & Neering 2016:16). The average rent for a two bedroom unit in the area is $2,813 dollars, which leaves workers in low paid jobs “only a few hundred dollars left after paying rent, forcing difficult choices between stable housing and food, transportation, medical expenses or child care” (Working Partnership USA 2016:7). Silicon Valley tech firms achieve great financial success in part due to the underpaid contributions of these contracted employees which places them in situations where the taxpayer must bear the burden of feeding and housing them, essentially subsidizing these very profitable firms by providing the barest essential support for an invisible workforce.

Despite the contributions that illegal immigrants provide to the companies that hire them, and as a consequence the contributions to the economy as a whole, approximately half of Americans are “greatly concerned about illegal immigration, and their concern has escalated since 2001” (Diaz et al. 2011:303). While a majority of Americans believe that undocumented workers are hard workers and contribute economically, they fear the costs incurred through the “use of public resources by immigrants, such as educational and medical services, as well as how immigrants drive wages down for many citizens” (Diaz et al. 2011:303). This worry is coupled with a preconception that the United States is being flooded with immigrants when in actuality the “number of undocumented immigrants in the United States has stabilized over the past few years, due in part to greater enforcement of immigration laws but mostly to the slowdown in the U.S. economy” (Furman et al 2012: 2). These concerns often manifest in hostile nativist exclusionary sentiments directed at immigrants.

These sentiments have led to increasingly hostile legal and social policy towards illegal immigrants. These policies are based on rhetoric which constructs two opposing groups, the hardworking “hardworking ‘taxpayers/citizens’ who were being unfairly burdened by government versus ‘freeloading’ immigrants who entered the country in search of free education, health care, housing, and food stamp benefits” (Fernandez 2010:108). This rhetoric describes “immigration as a redistributive policy that was unjustly taking away taxpayer’s privileges and rights as citizens and sharing them with foreigners who had not earned them” which ignores evidence to the contrary, that “legal and illegal immigrants are in fact also ‘taxpayers’—contributing income, social security, property, and sales taxes to the nation” (Fernandez 2010:108). These sentiments are not unusual in the history of the United States. Immigrants as a whole, and illegal immigrants in particular since the 1980s, have long been targets for displaced anger during economic crisis. The United States has a long history of xenophobic reactions to “the influx of immigrants from various cultural backgrounds” that has created social policy which seeks to protect American cultural values and citizen’s economic status (Diaz, et al 2011:301). Historically, critics of lax immigration policy posit that illegal immigrants steal jobs from Americans while simultaneously burdening the educational, welfare, and health systems, and often consider “a large number of illegal immigrants to pose a threat to the society’s basic structure and safety” (Diaz, et al 2011:302). This mirrors the concern and discriminatory practices that have accompanied every prior influx of immigrants to these shores. Whether those unwanted immigrants were Irish, Italian, Polish, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese or Mexican, they have contributed to the diversity and economic prowess of the United States, “which has contributed to the nation as a whole from colonial times to the current day” (Diaz, et al 2011:303).

Regardless of their merits, these sentiments and rhetoric have resulted in subsequently stricter immigration laws in many states, including Arizona, Alabama, and Georgia. These laws have resulted in unintended consequences to the agricultural sectors of Alabama and Georgia. Both states are now experiencing “significant labor shortages and [these states] have expressed concern over their inability to plant and harvest crops” (Furman, 2012:4). This supports the implication that immigrant workers contribute to the economic well-being of states reliant on agriculture by performing jobs that many Americans would prefer not to do. The Georgia Department of Labor reports a 5.4% unemployment rate (Butler 2016), while the Alabama Labor Department reports a 6.2% unemployment rate (Labor Market Division 2016), both of which are higher than the national average of 4.9% (Butler 2016).

Currently, U.S. immigration law and employment law do not function in tandem. A company that employs illegal immigrants may is willingly breaking the law but they only face fines from immigration violations. The United States prioritizes “immigration violations at the expense of employment remedies” (Hipolito 2010:68). The crimes committed against the undocumented worker, for instance wage theft or overtime violations, are not repaid. Employment law is effectively irrelevant in the case of undocumented workers, which means that in many cases, even with fines, it is still financially beneficial to hire illegal immigrants. This creates a demand for illegal workers which is continually filled by new immigrants who are subsequently punished for providing the labor our legal system encourages. If employment rights were protected equally, it would encourage an equalization of labor costs of documented and undocumented workers, resulting in employers having “less incentive to hire undocumented worker, and thus there would be less demand for undocumented workers overall” (Hipolito 2010:69).

Current American politics is inundated with rhetoric which portrays illegal immigrants as job stealing parasites who are overrunning the country with anchor babies. The first part of that accusation seems hollow in light of the effects of curtailing illegal immigration in states such as Alabama and Georgia. Even in immigrant friendly states such as California, illegal immigrants perform backbreaking physical labor such as picking grapes manually, or serve in invisible underpaid contract jobs for the tech sector, jobs that the majority of Americans evidently would prefer not to do, from the vast number of minorities represented in their number. The second part of the accusation, that they are parasites, is a direct consequence of lax labor laws in regards to immigrants and the ability of employers to leverage that into reduced costs which are then transferred to the taxpayer, which by extension, includes illegal immigrants. While immigrants are likely to be paid low enough to not pay income taxes, they do still consume products which contributes to the overall tax revenue of their state. The welfare costs associated with illegal immigrants is a result of employers leveraging their legal status to their benefit. The third accusation, that illegal immigrants are overrunning the country is unlikely and the result of racial and cultural stereotyping. The rate of illegal immigration has stabilized for the past decade, and despite former Florida Governor Jeb Bush’s claim that “immigrants are more fertile” the birth rate has “declined more than twice as much for immigrants as natives between 2008 and 2013” (Camarota & Zeigler 2015:1). While technically, Jeb Bush was correct, “immigrant fertility has only a small impact on the nation’s over­all birth rate” and raises “the birth rate for all women in their reproductive years by 4% percent” (Camarota & Zeigler 2015:1). This potential increase is mitigated by the reduced Total Fertility Rate (the total number of expected children) which has declined for immigrants more rapidly than for natives and if trends continue will drop below the “level necessary to replace the existing population” of immigrants (Camarota & Zeigler 2015:1). The rhetoric aimed at illegal immigrants focuses on negative societal effects which are either incorrect, such as stealing jobs, the result of lax employment law, such as taxpayer cost, or based on racial stereotyping and without consequence.

If it is beneficial for the United States to curtail illegal immigration, it is necessary to create and enforce laws which prevent employers from profiting from illegal immigration. The results of such laws have potentially steep costs to the economy, as seen in Georgia and Alabama. It is likely that more economically powerful employers, such as Silicon Valley tech sector firms, would be able to withstand the increased costs of such potential laws, but it would result in significant changes to the industry and its profits, which would affect their direct hire employees and stockholders. If, on the contrary, it is beneficial for the United States to embrace illegal immigrants, then it may become necessary to dispense with the concept of illegal immigration and grant them a legal status which protects them from abuse, which as a consequence will increase the costs associated with hiring them. This may result in higher wages for low-skilled natives but it may also result in a reduction in workforce, just as minimum wage hikes result in increased automation and reduced staff. Regardless of what policy changes occur, it is clear that the invisible work done by illegal immigrants is an essential part of the United States economy yet they are held in contempt by many Americans. Politicians gain influence by speaking against illegal immigrants while simultaneously receiving campaign contributions from companies who benefit from their labor. The economic, political, and social benefits and costs of illegal immigration form a complex equation unlikely to be solved by blunt application of political force.


Benner, Chris and Kyle Neering. 2016. “Silicon Valley Technology Industries Contract Workforce Assessment.” Everett Program: Digital Tools for Social Innovation 1–34. Retrieved ( workforce-assessment.pdf).

Butler, Mark, ed. n.d. “Georgia Department Of Labor.” Georgia Department of Labor. Retrieved April 6, 2016 (

Diaz, Priscila, Delia S. Saenz, and Virginia S. y. Kwan. 2011. “Economic Dynamics And Changes in Attitudes Toward Undocumented Mexican Immigrants in Arizona.” Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy 11(1):300–313.

Devault, Marjorie L. 2014. “Mapping Invisible Work: Conceptual Tools For Social Justice Projects.” Sociol Forum Sociological Forum 29(4):775–90.

Fernandez, Lilia. 2010. “Deconstructing Immigration Discourse.” Journal of American Ethnic History 30(1):107–11.

Furman, R., A. R. Ackerman, and N. J. Negi. 2012. “Undocumented Latino Immigrant Men in the United States: Policy and Practice Considerations.” International Social Work 55(6):816–22.

Hipolito, Joey. 2010. “Learning From RICO: Immigration Enforcement Through Employer Accountability.” Berkely La Raza Law Journal 20:67–88.

Labor Market Information Division, ed. 2016. “ALABAMA UNEMPLOYMENT RATE AND NUMBER UNEMPLOYED.” Alabama Department of Labor. Retrieved April 6, 2016 (

Webb, J. W., L. Tihanyi, R. D. Ireland, and D. G. Sirmon. 2009. “You Say Illegal, I Say Legitimate: Entrepreneurship In the Informal Economy.” Academy of Management Review 34(3):492–510.

Working Partnership U. SA. 2016. “Tech's Invisible Workforce.” Silicon Valley Rising. Retrieved April 6, 2016 (

1 comment:

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