Undocumented emigrants’ civil disobedience: Self-employment and informality
The civil disobedience of each working day
has given undocumented emigrants in the US
a space where their own business licenses,
recognition of their skills and qualifications,
their personalized work, their financial progress
and their trucks, which serve as their passports,
all make them increasingly more indispensable,
thus less excluded by migration laws and racism.
I met four interesting examples:
Reynaldo the gardener, Eladio the tailor,
Kelvin the builder and Benjamín the businessman.
José Luis Rocha
Central American migrant caravans have become the media darling of population mobility. They showcase acts of defiance against an exclusionary system affecting people both here and there: in the countries of origin and of destination.
But they aren’t the biggest acts of defiance, or even the most numerous. Migration by drips as opposed to en masse has been both more extensive and more challenging. The system is challenged not only along the way and on crossing the border, which are the most visible aspects of the migrant caravan, but also inside the United States. Once in, migrants do what they like, overcoming a potentially devastating triple marginalization (unauthorized, informal and self-employed). These are the conditions in which migrants forge their inclusion, first as a workforce, then as de facto residents, and finally, after a time, as legal ones.
Are all undocumented migrants
in the informal economy?
According to the US Census Bureau employment survey, more Central Americans are self-employed (9.7%) than either Latinos as a whole (8.4%) or the general US population (7.7%). From the “requiem for the working class” perspective intoned by sociologist Jeremy Rifkin in The End of Work, this data could be an indicator of the labor vulnerability characteristic of being undocumented. Rifkin mentions the recourse to sub-contracting as a means employers use to avoid paying for health insurance, reduce their fixed-cost structure, quickly eliminate workers in response to seasonal or even monthly market trends and avoid unions.
Philosopher André Gorz adds that the company that turns to outsourcing keeps its subcontractors in a state of dependency that “allows it to impose continual price reductions on them and pass on fluctuations in demand.” Subcontractors act as peripheral employees whose services can be dismissed by the company at any moment, and whose workload is subject to unlimited fluctuations. These peripheral workers are “supposedly ‘self-employed’ operatives, paid on a sessional basis or on piece work, whose workload varies according to the needs of the moment. These ‘freelancers’ are not covered by labor law, have no social insurance and are exposed to all the commercial and economic risks which the company offloads onto them.” In addition to delving deeper into the social conditions of subcontracting, Gorz points out the overlap between this sub-contracting, a certain kind of self-employment and labor informality.
But reality isn’t quite like that. Some of these companies are owned by undocumented immigrants themselves, in which for all effects and purposes they are their own employers. Some are legally registered and others have no more “formalization” than a business card and a big announcement of their business, displayed on the vehicles the owner uses to get around.
All, however, lie beyond the formality we associate with salaries, monthly loan payments, fear of the tax collector, meals at routine times, good health insurance, social security withholding and annual vacations. Their owners are part of the urban sub-proletariat anthropologist Keith Hart referred to in 1973 when he coined the concept of the informal economy.
The informal economy sub-proletariat is a collective that used to be characterized as “a passive, exploited majority.” But using the case of Ghana, Hart revealed it to be a group of migrants who could “look to the prospect of accumulation, with or without a job, in the informal economy of the urban slums.”
Until recently, the theory linked informality to features of the least developed economies incapable of fully modernizing, stanching the overflow of migration to cities or implementing university education and literacy programs. When present in developed countries, informality was linked to immigration originating in the third world. Nonetheless, in contrast to those who attribute the growing informali¬zation of the US economy to migrants and propose controlling immigrant activities to eliminate the informal economy, sociologist Saskia Sassen links the growth of informality to the nature of the current phase of advanced economies, in particular the decline in the industrial manufacturing complex in the post-war era and the emergence of a new economic complex dominated by services.
A silent invasion of the city streets
Informality is no newcomer to the US economy. In 1985 underground activities generated economic activity on the order of US$300–600 billion. In large part, they embodied socially accepted practices: garage sales, dog walking and babysitting are old and highly institutionalized modes of reselling goods and offering services beyond state control.
But starting in the 1980s, when the changes mentioned by Sassen began, the range of activities stopped being relatively marginal and came to represent the main source of income for a growing number of households. They have been structured, promoted and multiplied by companies’ re-engineering schemes and by the charged relationship between state jurisdiction and the borders of its effective regulation that some call deregulation. As Aviva Chomsky shows, even those jobs that used to be included in the formal sector—such as factory work—have become immersed in the informal sector through an elaborate system of subcontracting. Hart summed it up: “To the extent that neoliberalism has succeeded in reducing state controls, the world economy itself has become largely an informal zone.” The informal economy in the United States at the beginning of the 1990s comprised between 6.7% and 13.9% of the GDP and for most of the decade averaged 9.2%. In 2011, the informal economy was responsible for 18–19% of the national income. Whether due to the growth in self-employment or informality, which often overlap, the number of people registering their Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) in 2006–2011 increased to 1.5 million per year.
Iranian sociologist Asef Bayat refers to this informal sector as the most polished embodiment of the silent invasion. One of the most developed examples is found among the street vendors. The economic value of this enormous sector is plain to see: in Los Angeles alone street sales are a $504 million industry covering 50,000 micro-businesses. Through this turbocharged development, the dynamics mentioned by Sassen hook up with galloping urbanization.
Hart observes that the huge growth in cities over the last two centuries cannot be organized as quickly as the governing elites would like. The informal economy is one way for people to generate their own means of survival and, in some cases, even of prosperity in the urban markets that spontaneously spring up to meet their needs. This self-generated scheme has the results foreseen by Bayat: the intensification of “the growth of subjectivities, social space and terrain of political struggles that are coming to characterize the cities of the developing world.” Not to mention those of the United States and other industrialized nations.
A large portion of immigrants find work in this sector. Based on the well-established correlation between migration and the informal labor market, immigrants build their integration and survival with the materials the socioeconomic conditions have given them. They take the opportunities that appear along the way, joining the most dynamic sectors that characteristically have the highest demand for labor, where their integration is easiest.
Many analyses about
informality are wrong
Here we need to correct the pejorative bias that most analyses have shown in their approach to informality. In his most recent book, British labor economist Guy Standing maintains that “one other factor has played a role in expanding the precariat. This is variously known as the shadow, gray or black economy… where much of the precariat survives, facing exploitation and oppression.” But the lines separating the informal and formal economies are not so clear. “Informal sector” and “informal zone” are expressions that convey the erroneous idea that there exists a duality in the market.
Neither is it true that one side is all good and the other all bad. Their distinguishing features are not exploitation and tax evasion, which also exist in the formal sector, but rather regulation or its absence. Moreover, the exploitation, tax evasion and precariousness that Vogel links to informal activities are rarely found among the undocumented immigrants with whom I conducted my field work. Immigrants tend to register their businesses and pay their taxes. What they do not usually do is keep their books in order or necessarily include all their sales on their tax returns. They swim in both the roped-off, fresh waters of formality and the open, salty waters of informality. The same is true of their legality: they create tight bonds with some institutions and evade others.
Informality does not mean low profit: their sales volume may top $6,000 a week over time, but it’s highly irregular. Exploitation is not always present, but precariousness is: they can earn $4,000 in eight hours for replacing a roof, then go several days without work. But this precariousness is no greater than that of a United Nations consultant or a freelance reporter.
Further, it’s not true that informality is always illegal and geared toward poor people, as in the iconic hot dog or taco stands, or the sale of pirated movies. This does apply in some cases, but it also happens that many services offered informally are those that once fell into the “Do it yourself” category, currently on the decline among overworked parents who face strong social pressure to devote their time to childrearing.
Some services are urgently required and can be more quickly obtained informally because the solution comes to your house: shoveling snow, removing leaf piles, repairing a shower, etc. In these cases there is not much bargaining; payment is generous because the time freed up and the problem solved are highly valued. The middle class has become the cornerstone of informal businesses.
It also doesn’t necessarily follow, as Standing supposes, that few workers join the informal workforce voluntarily—the vast majority is recruited primarily by unmitigated economic desperation. It would be false to say that the two worlds are separate. Many households have members in both sectors as a “don’t put all your eggs in one basket” strategy. Many undocumented people have—either temporarily or permanently—one foot in a regulated business and the other in an unregulated one. The first serves to guarantee a regular basic income and the second a more erratic but also more generous one.
Four cases of successful informal
migrants and their accomplices
The structural pressures toward informalization are highly globalized, and migrants play an important role. Those in doubt need only glance art its ideological, celebratory wing: the extensive literature extolling the virtues of self-employment. Some titles speak for themselves: Born Entrepreneurs? Immigrant Self-Employment in Spain or A New Brand of Expertise: How Independent Consultants and Free Agents are Transforming the World of Work. Others hold out irresistible offers, such as “Tax Power for the Self-Employed: maximize your deductions, establish your retirement plan, defer capital gains, qualify for a home office, and avoid audits.” Obviously, not all freelancers evade regulation, but it does happen that those who are regulated and those who aren’t offer the same services. We already know who has the advantage: if a middle-class couple wants to remodel their kitchen, repair their roof or spruce up the garden, hiring an informal business will save them thousands of dollars without sacrificing quality. They will, however, need to take certain risks.
Thus we have an economy with a marked tendency toward informalization and some migrants who fit that market niche, meeting the systemic need for a work they offer. Many are migrants waiting in 7-Eleven and hardware store parking lots to be hired, whose low salaries hover around the federal poverty level. But there’s another, relatively well-off segment of the “silent invasion”: tailors who are invading Beverly Hills, indigenous people who are taking over soccer fields in Central Los Angeles, gardeners buried under a landslide of contracts and interior remodelers who treat their associates as if they were construction magnates. All of them are contributing to the restructuring of labor relations such that their inclusion is socially validated by the labor market.
I met four such cases. They are helping restructure labor relations in such a way that their inclusion is socially validated in the labor market. And all four find support and accomplices for their civil disobedience in daily practice.
The lucrative gardening trade
According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), 58% of informal service workers in the United States in 2000 were Latin American immigrants. Many work in gardening, an activity with continuous growth since the 1970s and still with great economic potential. Thousands of undocumented workers made up the 24% of those who whose livelihood was in this field in 2012. In Los Angeles alone the number of gardeners doubled between 1980 and 1990.
The amount US citizens spend on their lawns and gardens jumped from $21 to $45 billion between 2001 and 2006. But it is an activity severely affected by crises: it fell to $20 billion in the dark year of 2009. Nonetheless, gardening continues to be a high-demand sector that Aviva Chomsky attributes to two factors: First, growth in the ranks of the super-rich who want to maintain palatial gardens. Second, suburban, middle-class and upper middle-class families, who a generation ago maintained their own yards, are now too busy so hire someone else to do it for them. Many also find the work too hard. The pay varies: for a regular, twice-a-week service, owners will generally pay $200–300 per month. Among those employed by a company, I found figures of $10 to $25 per hour.
a man of four seasons
Reynaldo Campos is one of 26,038 Honduras who live in the Commonwealth of Virginia and of 8,898 who live in Fairfax County. He is part of that 58%, or perhaps more by now, who works in gardening. He plants and replants in springtime, prunes in summer, rakes leaves in autumn and shovels snow in winter.
Reynaldo is the owner, manager, administrator and, often, only worker of “Campos Landscaping Services,” a business lacking both legal status and insurance, but stocked with all the equipment necessary for gardening, as well as masonry and carpentry jobs. His three vehicles (two pick-up trucks and a car) are registered to a religious congregation.
Reynaldo designed a logo that’s printed as the background to his company’s name on his business cards and vehicles. All this mimicking of major companies has its effect on his income. Reynaldo has more than proven the description of this trade by sociologist Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo: “Gardening is a stratified occupation, in which some gardeners remain mired in minimum-wage jobs, while the ‘route owner’ gardeners who own the trucks and tools earn better incomes by combining entrepreneurship and manual labor.” To tools and vehicles, I would add publicity elements (logos, signs), an affable manner and knowledge of how this market functions: how much is a reasonable rate, what services to offer, and how to find and approach clients. Certainly in this market niche, immigrants are not “unskilled labor”; anyone who dares to print up a business card proclaiming “Landscaping Services” has likely acquired expertise in the area in which he offers his services.
What Hondagneu-Sotelo said about California’s gardens applies equally to those in Virginia: “The invisibility of garden labor is reproduced in garden books and magazines and is thrown into relief in Southern California, where thousands of perfectly manicured gardens are maintained by Latino immigrant gardeners.”
They seek us out because we’re
not going to bleed them dry
A few days alongside Reynaldo allowed me to see some of what has been rendered invisible. One morning we went to a middle-class neighborhood and entered the spacious home of a Pakistani-American couple. As soon as we entered they offered us something to drink and showed all the polite touches that help create a certain level of horizontality in the relationship. Although Reynaldo did everything in his power to hide his basic English, directing his attention ipso facto to measuring the grounds and responding with monosyllables of varying degrees of relevance, the couple soon recognized his plight, undoubtedly one familiar to them. Their friendly demeanor and desire to close a deal for several thousand dollars were unchanged. They had not met Reynaldo previously, but they had very good references for his work. The mood was relaxed, which helped Reynaldo venture more phrases in English. “Depending on the atmosphere, I take a little more risk,” he told me later.
Other visits were similar. These were rituals for beginning to build trust. Informal work lacks contracts and is established nearly exclusively on the word of both parties. Those who think these agreements bring advantages only for the middle classes forget that such illegality involves innumerable risks, particularly because it involves hiring an undocumented person who can be deported at any moment or could return home voluntarily. An oral contract nullifies any possible legal claims, but it is a frequent rather than unusual measure. It has even been hailed by economists as a mechanism that reduces transaction costs as it rests on informal obligations. The problem is that the relationship between an undocumented gardener and a middle-class US citizen does not allow for many symmetrical informal obligations with the efficacy required to eliminate the high level of exposure to shams. Both parties risk a lot.
What is the advantage? This was Reynaldo’s explanation: “If say a landscaping a company comes along with everything regulated, the clients get eaten alive. Those guys charge the true cost, by the books. That’s why they look for contractors like us, who won’t bleed them dry. Some clients are really bad because they want to pay a pittance yet ask for three insurance policies: property insurance, in case you break something; insurance for my car, which is a commercial vehicle, so they want me to have commercial insurance, which covers more than personal; and workers’ insurance, so they won’t be held liable if a worker gets hurt. Those insurance policies cover damages up to two million dollars.” Informal companies don’t have all this insurance. Reynaldo has two: for vehicles and for property.
This relationship is similar to the one established between middle-class ladies and their African-American domestic workers who participated in the Montgomery bus boycott during the civil rights struggle in the 1960s. The ladies collaborated with the boycott by transporting their maids in their cars. Of course these bosses operated out of personal interest, but their support was so effective that they could virtually have been part of the central boycott organizing committee. To appreciate how the mere force of necessity produced something greater than a change in behavior, you have to appreciate how those Southern ladies broke with tradition as they suddenly saw themselves turned into their maids’ drivers.
Better with papers or without?
In the case of those who hire informal businesses run by undocumented workers, they have to overcome ethnic, class and legal status prejudices. Otherwise they would not trust the word of those doing the work for them.
The arrangements I observed weren’t onerous ones where one party was taking advantage of the other; it was a mutually beneficial agreement, whose starting point is recognition of Reynaldo’s right to work. There was no intention to exploit. Reynaldo’s double illegality—business and migratory—implies a high level of complicity from his clients. This complicity validates Reynaldo’s inclusion in US society in spite of state policy.
Building on this complicity and following a hard-working itinerary, Reynaldo has accumulated a respectable amount of capital: “I began at a Korean supermarket, earning $6.25 an hour, the minimum wage at that time. But for overtime they’d give me $10.50. That was in Maryland. I lived there for seven years. Afterwards I worked a year in construction. There I earned a lot because they gave me living expenses. They gave me $1,300 a month for food and rent in addition to my hourly wages of $11 and overtime at $16.50. I did a ton of overtime, sometimes up to 20 hours a week. I would get $700 checks every week.
“Now in landscaping I make a bunch more money. I throw myself into work with whatever comes up: mulching, pruning trees, tossing firewood, cutting grass... Now I want to get my business license so I can do even better. That way I can bid on big jobs. It’s better for my project of creating a company to have papers or a partner with papers.”
Despite this aspiration, Reynaldo holds the same opinion as Kelvin, another Honduran migrant: “A friend got his papers as a Dreamer. He works at Sears, but they only give him 35 hours. And the pay is lousy. A lot of people think that having those papers in hand, life’s going to get easy and they’re not going to have to work so hard. But above all, you have to know how to work. Papers are useful, but only if you know how to work. And if you don’t have papers, you look really hard and find a good job. I never lack for work year round: in the springtime I plant, in summer I prune, in autumn I rake leaves and in winter I shovel snow. Before, the snowfall would keep me from working, and it seemed like a disaster to me. Now I can make hundreds of dollars a day with a good snowfall.”
The complicity of companies
with those who don’t have papers
This complicity shown by clients of informal businesses is shared by formal companies that depend on an undocumented workforce. The California Landscape Contractors Association (CLCA), comprising 2,000 authorized contractors, complains of a shortage of workers, which could be addressed by legalizing undocumented workers. This would also guarantee the workers a minimum of $15 to $20 an hour plus benefits.
The CLCA is the standard-bearer for a migration reform that includes a general amnesty. Their argument has clout: “The landscaping industry relies heavily on an immigrant labor force. Landscaping is physically demanding work. It is performed in hot, cold and sometimes rainy weather. Some landscaping jobs are seasonal. American-born workers increasingly are not attracted to such jobs. Because landscaping work involves outdoor manual labor, it is to some extent young persons’ work. Yet America has an aging workforce. At the same time, the landscape industry is growing and therefore has a need for more workers, partly because this same aging population tends to enlarge the market for landscaping services. Immigrants, who tend to be young, address this unmet need for younger workers in the landscape industry.”
Although the CLCA demands a return to the “rule of law,” it “supports reasonable enforcement against employers if comprehensive immigration reform is achieved.” Having established that the landscaping industry has now and, caeteris paribus, will continue to have a structural dependence on immigrant labor, the CLCA clarifies its position on disobedience: it will continue hiring undocumented workers, not abandoning legality, but only admitting the “reasonable” application of the law if the proposed change is enacted, for which—although it doesn’t admit it—it fights day after day by massively hiring undocumented workers.
The strength of this labor force is systemic: if an industry already facing a shortage of workers is threatened with losing nearly a quarter of its labor, it has a strong incentive to disobey and make its position known. Contractors are acting as spokespersons for immigrants, and while the overlap of their interests is only partial, there is indeed coincidence and sometimes also an extreme complicity in support for undocumented workers’ disobedience, such as happens with landscaping business owners who advance money so undocumented workers can pay coyotes to travel to and from their countries of origin.
One of them lamented the negative effect of deportations on his business: “I lost a key man,” he said, “a cornerstone who won’t be able to return to this country.” His argument for disobedience isn’t based on justice or integrity; it is simply materialistic, based on recognition that he lost an indispensable skilled laborer.
The tailor of Beverly Hills
The population of Guatemalan descent in Los Angeles County is rapidly growing. In 2000 there were 100,341, in 2010 they had grown to 214,939, and in 2013 they topped 261,603, of whom 176,732 were immigrants. Among those born in Guatemala, 64.5% entered before 2000. The self-employed represent 17.4%. In the city of Los Angeles alone there are 121,255 Guatemalan immigrants, 59% of whom entered before 2000; 55.5% are men and 21.3% are self-employed. One of them is 39-year-old Eladio Ixcoteyac, a tailor by profession descended from a family of tailors, originally from San Antonio de Sija, Totonicapán.
He arrived in Los Angeles in 1995, when he was 15. He paid $1,000 to the coyote who brought him in via Nogales, crossing the Arizona desert in three days: “Then I took a plane from Arizona to Los Angeles. At that time it was easy, not like now, after the 9/11 attacks.”
He has four children: a daughter in Guatemala, and three born and raised in Los Angeles. He holds three types of precariousness: informal employment, self-employment and undocumented status. He is one of those undocumented tailors who in 2012 represented 20% of the entire labor force for the garment industry, another one that cannot do without undocumented workers lest they perish. This dependence is found in not only this industry, but also the whole buoyant informal economy of Los Angeles, which in 2005 absorbed 15% of the work force, 60% of them undocumented workers.
The garment industry has grown rapidly in Los Angeles. Unfortunately most of the data come from the formal sector. In 1944 there were 900 clothing manufacturers in the city, employing 28,000 workers; in 1975 there were 2,269 shops with 66,000 employees, the majority women and Hispanic. The formal sector generated 81,400 jobs just in 1984. Sales in 1983 reached $3.5 billion, with between 30 and 50% supplied by the economy.
In the 1990s a total of 94,634 formal and informal workers was calculated, 47% of them undocumented immigrants. In 2011 the 30 largest industries hired 45,540 employees and clothing manufacturing became the second most competitive industry in Los Angeles County. In the first quarter of 2015, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 2,106 formal establishments hired 42,477 employees and paid $359 million.
This strong industry feeds both mass production and conspicuous consumption, and immigrants are in both the formal and informal economies and the mass and elitist industries. They sew for the masses that they themselves are part of, and for the opulent clientele of a city that is constantly awash in new waves of wealth and millionaires. Contrary to my intuition, I found no correlation between formality and luxury, or between informality and lower classes. I found them all in combination. The small factories of downtown Los Angeles supply both formal and informal sales, in a complex system of pulleys that avoid saturation. Eladio Ixcoteyac’s informality does not limit his access to the haute couture market.
Eladio’s shop made a
suit for Sylvester Stallone
One morning Eladio invited me to his shop. Thanks to a compelling strength of imagination that anticipates future scenarios, I pictured a simple cubby hole at the back of a narrow corridor, with inadequate ventilation and dim lighting. Eladio came to get me in a giant SUV registered in his name, although his driver’s license is from Guatemala and he could lose the vehicle if stopped by the police. He has already lost three in the 19 years he’s been living in Los Angeles. Not a bad record. One of those times he tried to escape, but to his surprise the police found him using a helicopter.
First he invited me to breakfast and then we made our way to his shop: two second-floor rooms with a spectacular view of the most touristy street in Beverly Hills. We talked while he altered a jacket with impressive speed. Making light incisions with a razor blade, he relocated the seams and the shoulder pads, giving the jacket different dimensions, then he hung it on a hanger and covered it with a protective cloth. After getting dressed with exquisite formality, we went to drop the garment off at a Burberry store just 150 meters from the shop, passing by Valentino, Roberto Cavalli, Saint Laurent, Stefano Ricci, Cartier and Bvlgari. At Burberry the staff received Eladio with the deference reserved for an old, expert acquaintance. I busied myself looking at $450 scarves I would never buy while Eladio delivered the jacket.
As we left, he informed me that the jacket he had just delivered was for Sylvester Stallone, the actor with one of the biggest mansions in Beverly Hills. The job went down like this: Stallone came to Eladio’s shop with a jacket he’d bought in Italy that he wanted to fit him like a glove. That’s where Eladio comes in. Sometimes he goes to a client’s house: “I’ve been to the home of William Barron Hilton, of hotel fame; to Orlando Bloom’s house; to Aaron Paul’s; to the homes of movie producers and the lead actor of a film where they take out the eyes and heart of children in India. They don’t order suits from me. They buy them in Italy, where the best tailors are. They just hire me for alterations. They call the major brands and those in turn call me. They appreciate work well done. It’s harder to repair a suit than to make one from scratch.” Eladio is the catchall tailor for several firms. They pay him well and charge their clients even more.
“On a bad day I still
make at least $80"
Eladio Ixcoteyac’s situation is far from exceptional. He’s not the only supplier in the luxury goods and services industry. And costuming isn’t the only industry demanding specialized service providers like Eladio.
Sassen observes that the wave of yuppies moving to cities has generated a demand for goods and services that mass production cannot supply. One example of the effect of this demand is the specialized food offerings of conspicuous small markets for clients dissatisfied with the standardized offer found in supermarkets. But we can also include clothing, footwear and ethnic cuisine among the high-ticket items that undocumented immigrants provide. This is the consumption with which elite buyers daily draw the line separating them from the average consumer. An ever-growing segment of elites seeks in extreme personalized consumption the characteristics that define them not only as a group but also as individuals: they look for clothing that matches their personality. For this reason Burberry and others hire Eladio, whose tailoring personalizes clothing until it fits like a glove.
This is why his pay is generous, in marked contrast to Guatemala: “What we might earn in a day in Guatemala, we earn here in an hour. The least we can make on a very bad day is $80. That’s why we came. If a lawyer and a farmer have to decide where to live, the lawyer doesn’t want to leave his job. But the farmer does. He doesn’t have anything to lose, because over there he’s only earning enough to cover his own food. He can’t sustainably feed any other mouths. And if he does, all three will suffer malnutrition. So he comes here and starts to earn more than the lawyer. Working hard is no problem for us. We’re used to hard work. Here we always make money, whereas there too much of the work is for no pay: hauling water, chopping firewood... All that takes time but doesn’t count. Even just escaping all that unpaid work is already a bonus.”
Work that distinguishes
and offers distinction
Eladio is aware that he made both a quantitative leap (from a depressed salary to a higher one) and a qualitative one (from unpaid to paid labor). In reality, Eladio made a second qualitative leap: from abstract work to a job where the craft and the craftsman are visible and held in high esteem.
The personalized nature of his work has implications that lead us to the Marxist critique of the capitalist system. Marx decried that work was “abstracted from the producers,” an idea he took from “An Inquiry into the Principles of the Distribution of Wealth Most Conducive to Human Happiness” by William Thompson, an Irish economist and social reformer. Personalized production breaks with what William Thompson understood—and Marx quoted—as that which “is annually produced and consumed by the masses, like the eternal and incalculable waves of a mighty river, that roll on and are lost in the forgotten ocean of consumption.” Personalization doesn’t allow for the “total abstraction from use value” that characterizes the act of exchanging goods. Marx adds that “if we make abstraction from [a product’s[use value, we make abstraction at the same time from the material elements and shapes that make the product a use value; we see in it no longer a table, a house, yarn or any other useful thing. Its existence as a material thing is put out of sight. Neither can it any longer be regarded as the product of the labor of the joiner, the mason, the spinner or of any other definite kind of productive labor.”
Eladio often remains in the shadows, but other times—and ever more frequently—not only are his alterations visible, but so is he. Through these direct contacts he’s starting to reap a client base: “I now have my own clientele. I make clothing for the Mexican boxer Canelo Álvarez and for Ryan Seacrest, the American Idol host. I have clients from Europe: Spain, Italy and Switzerland. Many are writers and actors.” Eladio can present his work as his own.
André Gorz maintains that the advantages of freelance work are reserved for those whom Rifkin calls “the elite of knowledge workers”: consultants, commercial lawyers, and computer experts or other high-level workers who represent less than 1% of the work force. For the rest, unless they are highly organized, “the post-job era merely means companies are free to fish out from a well-stocked pool of service-providers of all kinds those who offer the best service at the lowest price.” But we have seen that Reynaldo and, above all, Eladio managed to situate themselves in self-employment, the former among the middle class and the latter among the elites, with high incomes and a job that defines and confers distinction.
“I’ve made a name for myself here”
What Žižek, following in Marx’s steps, calls their objective social position is the negation of the abstraction of work. This negation takes the form of a struggle “as a class” and not “between classes.” Let’s remember that class position for Marx is posited as a struggle against capital more than against the bourgeoisie. The class struggle of the self-employed appears as a struggle against the alienation of work. Abstract work implies massification that, according to Bourdieu, “underlies working-class experience of the world, whereby his labor and the product of his labor, opus proprium, present themselves to the worker as opus alienum, ‘alienated’ labor.” Work where the tailor is recognized as the author—whose clientele spread his fame by word of mouth—is opus proprium.
Eladio Ixoteyac repeated several times a complaint that shows the importance of having a job that distinguishes him: “They call us all ‘Mexican people.’ The Americans call us all that. Guatemalans are ‘Mexican people.’ We also get labeled ‘mojados’ (wetbacks) and ‘welferos’ because they say we live off the welfare State, but that’s not true because those who come here want to work and don’t even know what their rights are. Only those who speak English and have been here a long time can request aid from the State. But they judge us for that. There’s discrimination in Beverly Hills, but it’s not as bad. The only thing they want is for you to be clean and respectful. They give you your place. And I’ve made a name for myself here.”
The advantages large companies gain from informality and outsourcing have been reflected—profusely and correctly—by Gorz and Rifkin, among many others. But this doesn’t mean the labor force only accrues disadvantages. At first, when he was newly arrived in Los Angeles, Eladio preferred a formal job that gave him stability and a regular income. He worked in a big clothing chain and attended fashion shows where “there were no Latinas, only white models and white tailors, and more than once the security guards said to me, ‘Pardon the question, but what are you doing here?’”
Better without documents
Later he decided to build his future with the materials history had made available to him. He has rejected offers in the formal sector. In his undocumented condition, “marrying” one of these large companies would be a very complicated transaction because the fat cats shun bad press like the plague, and to be seen hiring undocumented workers would be one of the worst kind of stories in a hypocritical context where many pretend the emperor isn’t totally nude.
It wouldn’t be impossible: Burberry could ask Eladio for a social security number and pretend not to know it’s a “bad” number. But that would leave Eladio in an even worse position than now: in greater danger and with lower income. In addition to the risk of being caught committing a felony—whereas being undocumented is only a venial sin—Eladio would see his net income drop because he would no longer be able to work for other companies, and his employer would calculate the costs of including his employee benefits.
Making matters worse, he could never use the social security withholding, so it would be money lost—for Eladio—only to swell the Treasury Department’s growing ‘accrued in error’ account (withholding for inexistent numbers or those that do not match any tax ID). Thus the mutually beneficial solution is disobedience by both parties, complicity in adding labor malfeasance to migratory malfeasance. Eladio continues to dress the petty kings of Hollywood who don’t know—or pretend they don’t—that their tailor has no documents on him.
Like many other Guatemalans, Benjamín Lux came to work in the clothing industry. Now he is his brother’s business partner, minority owner of his own shop and an investor in sporting events. He knows all three worlds: Guatemala, the factories of Los Angeles and the independence of self-employment.
He’s a standard-bearer for informality and freelancing and freely shares his reasons: “Down in Guatemala, they made us believe from the time we were kids that we’re useless good-for-nothing Indians. I studied in a place called San Carlos. The people who live there have European, Spanish roots. They’re tall and blond. My dad would tell me: ‘They’ll abuse you there, you’ll suffer. You’re better off staying here.’ But I went. And sure enough, the whole time they called me an Indian. They did it to humiliate me. That’s why many Quichés don’t speak their own language. ‘I don’t speak that dialect,’ they lie; ‘I don’t even know what it is.’ But when they talked, you could hear their accent. Here in the United States there’s racism, but it’s not like in other countries. If we compare the United States to Europe, there is more racism in Europe. If you work with a gringo, he pays you better. He gives you a good salary, he treats you well. Here the ones who abuse people are the Asians, like the Chinese or Koreans. They exploit people.
“If you want to talk about the fashion industry, that’s where the majority of indigenous Guatemalans are. Out of every 10 indigenous people, 8 are in fashion, and there are also a lot of Mexicans. That’s where we all go when we get here. The jobs are badly paid. They pay just pennies per piece. To be able to make $80 or $90 a day, you have make 3,000 pieces. It’s really backbreaking. If we file a complaint with the Labor Commission, they close the factory and we all lose our jobs or at least several days of work.
“But it’s a better job than others. A sewing machine operator makes more than someone who works at McDonald’s. And a tailor earns even more, if he’s independent. The sewing machine operator works by quantity of one task: this guy takes care of hemming, that one puts collars on, the other puts on buttons... But a tailor knows how to do everything, and his work is better paid. Because even when things aren’t going his way, if he’s just a worker, a tailor earns $180, $200, $250 a day. And if he’s the owner, like Eladio, he earns a lot more.”
Quiché business owners
in clothing and in soccer
Benjamín and his brother have been able to make their way with informal but solid companies: “My brother has a shop with five employees in Hollywood. He doesn’t have papers, but he has his number for paying taxes and social security.
“He also has two sporting goods stores, eight fields and a football league with four divisions registered to his name: major, super major, premier and professional. In each division there are around 40 teams. So he has more than 100 teams. There are 20 to 25 players on each team. Each player has to pay around $15, so each game makes him $300. And each game lasts an hour and a half. The first game starts at 6 am and the last at 9 pm. There are several games each day on each of the eight fields, so he makes a lot of money. He pays for maintaining the fields and for rent. If the teams don’t arrive, there are fines. If a player gets a red card, the owner of the team can pay $40 so he’s allowed to play in the following game.”
This type of league succeeds because soccer is an essential part of what it means to be Latino in the United States. The Los Angeles leagues include Latina women, although they only make up 10%. They have produced well-known stars like the Salvadoran Mauricio Cienfuegos, who now plays for the Los Angeles Galaxi. To better appreciate the dimensions of a league with over 100 teams and 4,000 players, like the one Benjamín’s brother manages, Seattle’s Liga Hispana (Hispanic League), with its 36 teams and 600 players (including some Nicaraguans) is worthy of mention.
Before they left Guatemala, the farthest Benjamín and his brother had ever gone was to Totonicapán, the main city of the department of by that name. Now they own workshops, fields and leagues in the cosmopolis of Los Angeles. They are businessmen in both the fashion industry and the sports events industry. Unlike Eladio, they work for the masses: their clients are immigrants, many of them undocumented. But their offer of goods and services is also relatively personalized. They work in industries where migration irregularity has not prevented them from making a name for themselves, although it was an incentive for them to seek more favorable grounds than salaried jobs to prosper and become integrated into the market and in society.
Kelvin Orellana, from cows
to interior remodeling
Kelvin Orellana was born in Honduras and now lives in Maryland. He joins 20,042 other people who share these two characteristics. He is also one of the 26% of Hondurans now working in the state’s construction industry, where undocumented workers made up 12% of the labor force in 2012. It is a sector that generally eludes state control: even in Denmark it ranks first in informality with 48% of workers having declared no income in the 12 months prior to a 2012 survey.
Kelvin had less than no experience in the field. In Honduras he milked cows and drove a cheese maker’s truck. Now he works for a DC Metro official who owns several apartments and needs someone to handle maintenance for them. He has been called on to replace roofs, remodel interiors and renovate air conditioning systems. The apartments are numerous and the tenants can require emergency services any day of the week at any time: a drop ceiling that comes loose, a water leak, a broken-down washing machine, etc. Kelvin is paid generously for each instance. If the apartments’ owner were to hire a large formal company, “they’d eat him alive,” as Reynaldo would say. It’s a mutually advantageous relationship that doesn’t lead to an obvious power imbalance.
His other source of contracts is a large construction firm, whose manager advised him to register his own company. After seeking counsel, Kelvin registered his company and his contractor covered the costs. His builder’s license—which he displays with visible pride—allows him to provide services to several of the largest contractors in the industry.
His construction company is one of 15,900 that the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 2015 as registered in the State of Maryland and one of 2,382 in Montgomery County. Together they hired 143,745 workers in Maryland and 22,643 just in Montgomery County in January 2015. The average of 9 and 9.5 workers per company, respectively, gives us a sense that Kelvin’s one-person company could be typical. Kelvin sometimes uses the title and sometimes not: he sometimes works as a formal company and other times as an informal business.
For the Metro official Kelvin is informal. He takes care of those jobs in his free time, but during business hours he works as a bricklayer for a company that pays him by the hour. When he has a large flow of contracts, he works exclusively with his company.
Coming out of anonymity,
they recognize his rights
Right now his company isn’t keeping him busy every working day, but he can do other things to keep himself financially afloat: in one afternoon he can earn several thousand dollars. Kelvin’s annual income exceeds the $53,450 that in 2012 was the average income for construction inspectors, an occupation that requires a high school degree or equivalent. And it’s much more than the $35,210 for “maintenance and repair workers,” the segment that does the kind of jobs I saw Kelvin doing, which comprises 1,325,100 workers around the country.
Like many other freelancers who work informally—and also formally, when convenient—Kelvin has left behind the anonymity of abstract work and has established a highly personalized relationship with the Metro official, with the large company that sponsored his builder’s license and with other contractors. The trust he receives makes up for certain restrictions associated with his undocumented status. His contractor listens to his suggestions and gives him a credit card, risking that if Kelvin swindles him and leaves the country—whether of his own accord or due to deportation—he’ll have no chance to file a complaint for breach of trust.
Neither the large company nor the Metro official would want to make their relationship with an undocumented worker public, but every day they support his civil disobedience in mundane actions: his right to work, to start a business, to have a decent income, to feel included. With their contracts and the risks they run, they are voting every day to include undocumented workers and deny the state the authority, the right and the ability to exclude those whom they have already included. They have neutralized the exclusionary effects of the principle of territorial sovereignty.
It’s obvious that they gain a lot from Kelvin’s work ethic and even greater advantage from the establishment of his micro-business. This situation harbors risks for Kelvin, because in case of a steep economic crisis, it’s likely he will cease to sign contracts with the company, or at best they will be fewer and more poorly paid.
But sharp crises don’t only affect peripheral workers. Few jobs are immune, including ones in the public sector, as the last down cycle showed. That relatively mild crisis had the effect of guaranteeing more contracts for Kelvin and other small, informal-sector businesses because companies turned more to flexible labor: to those with their own van and well-honed skills.
A leap from undocumented
to a form of legitimacy
Although there are huge advantages for their contractors, this isn’t a zero-sum relationship, and the advantages are measured not only in currency: Kelvin has taken a leap toward a form of legitimacy. His determination to not be “left behind” and to enter an irregular labor market after his irregular entry into the country has unleashed a perlocu¬tionary effect on the key actors whose collaboration he requires to conduct his daily civil disobedience.
His business registration and contracts enable him to behave as if he were a full-fledged member of this society. Kelvin showed me his license as if he were showing me his green card or his citizenship card. He already has papers. That’s why he says: “When you have a van like this one, you can get ahead.”
Hondagneu-Sotelo says something similar about gardeners: their pick-up trucks and tools function as passports. Kelvin has not only the passport of his van; he also has his company’s ID card. Thus he can say: “I don’t have papers, but my business does.”
Civil disobedience in daily practice
Undocumented freelancers have turned André Gorz’s finding from the late 1960s on its head: “The demands of self-management that are born of productive praxis cannot be left outside the door of factories, laboratories or offices. Persons who cannot be given orders in their work will not be able to submit indefinitely to orders in their lives as citizens nor will they submit to rigid decisions coming from a central administration.” Undocumented workers first resisted decisions made by inflexible administrations and then sought self-determination.
Although migrants aren’t the cause of informality—rather, they grasp it as the building blocks for creating their future and their history—it’s not a politically haphazard matter. Informality and the lack of documentation share a similarly elusive relationship to state bureaucracy. Informality is the economic correlative of migratory irregularity. Undocumented workers are elusive both economically and in terms of territorial sovereignty. These are the two aspects in which they are unregulated by the state. This kind of correlative analog does not mean that most migrants are in the informal sector, but rather that self-employment informality offers a type of independence—freedom from regulation—that gets along with migratory irregularity.
This analogy squares with Sassen’s penetrating conclusion: we can no longer speak of regulatory “violations”; they are regulatory “fractures” because they increase the degree and aspects in which economic processes diverge from the model for which the regulations were designed. Migratory irregularity also implies regulatory “fractures,” but not because migratory regulations were designed for an obsolete migration model. Rather, they don’t fit the material world’s mechanisms, which have the final say on who is included, while putting an end to exclusionary wills. Informality multiplies these mechanisms.
Labor flexibilization is the material with which undocumented workers have softened the rigidity of migratory order. The daily practice of civil disobedience depends on the framework of ruptures in migratory regulation, which is sometimes supported by ruptures in economic regulation.
This gives rise to the fact that the legal model for regulating migration doesn’t call the shots in processes for integrating newcomers. It is instead a political model in which civil disobedience in daily life and its social backing have given undocumented workers a space where their business licenses, recognition of their skills and qualifications, the personalized work, their financial success and their vans cum passports—make them indispensable and, to that extent, less subject to exclusion.
Coming out of the shadows
It can be presumed that some of the situations described here occur on a massive scale. One must not lose sight of the fact that 9.7% of the Central American workforce in the United States is equivalent to over 210,000 workers. They are a small but growing “silent invasion” of self-employed people. Perhaps it is even greater than these numbers suggest: I can testify that Kelvin and Eladio were not counted among the self-employed on the Census.
Those in the informal sector turned stigma into a hallmark: out of present misery they are building the riches of the possible, following Gorz, for whom this situation is nothing to cry over: “The work which is disappearing is ‘abstract labor,’ measurable, quantifiable and detachable from the person who ‘provides’ it; work which can be bought and sold on the ‘labor market’.”
If undocumented workers hold the significant weight in the informal sector that different studies attribute to them, it would mean that the “shady world” of labor irregularity is rescuing them from the invisibility to which the migratory irregularity maintained by some authors subjects them: the escape from abstract work toward the opus proprium that provides the opportunity to shine with personal flair.
Paradoxically the world of self-employment makes migrants visible and indispensable. In packing plants, assembly plants, strawberry fields and even in the shops where they fry, pack up and deliver fast food, migrants are not as noticeable as when they are gardeners, plumbers, electricians, child care providers and cleaners. The latter come in direct contact with a middle-class clientele that every day grows more conscious of how migrants make a wide range of goods and services cheaper, and are not the unskilled leeches on the system trumpeted in reports and newspapers.
I’m notmake an apology for labor informality. This analysis stems fringm the empirical confirmation that these workers are making their way in a world of work with the materials—informality, self-employment, outsourcing—that recent history has granted them. They also use the knowledge that politics—and the construction of freedom—is not the absence of restrictions but the means to overcome them.
Informality and self-employment can bring a certain level of precariousness and exclusion from the predominant legality. Perhaps for this reason the political role of the self-employed may be more difficult to visualize. Self-employment is understood to weaken workers’ potential for organizing in factories, and the freelancer is seen as a sniper against the proletariat. But the freelancer is equally as subject to Marx’s determination: “The domination of capital has created for this mass a common situation, common interests.”
Self-employment is, for better or for worse, increasingly common, as if the capitalist tide were restoring the world of artisans it had originally dismantled. Self-employment also means autonomy, the achievement of a dream of independence that many immigrants share. Insofar as it is common and globalized, this situation is forming the non-collective actor referred to by Bayat. In the case of undocumented immigrants, their non-collective acts have become a reciprocal construction with another non-collective actor: the clients who acknowledge and legitimize them because they seek personalized products and service producers and providers they can deal with face to face.
It is unclear whether the collective actions of this non-collective actor will be anti-hegemonic or simply laudatory of entrepreneurship. But for those not in the undocumented workers’ movement, support in daily life for being included and neutralizing the exclusion of anti-immigrant policies is a major achievement. That adds up to 365 victories per year.
José Luis Roacha is a researcher associated with the Institute of Research and Projection on Global Territorial Dynamics of the Rafael Landívar University of Guatemala and of the José Simeón Cañas Central American University of El Salvador.