The Underground Workforce: Immigrants


Image courtesy of Flickr.

Image courtesy of Flickr.

A little over a month ago, I traveled to Queens to go pick up my 10th wedding anniversary cake from a family friend. To give you some context, I live in Long Island, NY (the forgotten borough, unless you talk The Hamptons) so anytime I want food or goods related to my West-Indian culture (and this cake was a West-Indian cake) I go to Queens or Brooklyn usually. Since I am approximately an hour and 15 minutes from Queens I try to maximize my trips by ensuring I get all the West-Indian goodies I want before returning home. This day, I did just that and went to my favorite Singh’s Roti Shop in Ozone Park to get my roti, doubles, pholourie and the like. The line in Singh’s on a Saturday is usually long but is made more pleasant by the people watching, aromatic scents and beautiful Soca and Calypso music playing while you wait.

I found something more at Singh’s this day and it involved a woman standing behind me on line.  I remember turning and smiling at her and she asked me: “If the line here is always this long?” I replied: “Yes, always!” She then went on to ask me if I was a Trinidadian and I said: “Yes, with a mix of Guyanese too”. She proceeded to tell me that she was so hungry as she has been working as a live-in aide to an elderly woman in Upstate New York and the family does not so much as grant her but 15 minutes to go and procure food for herself.

She went on to share with me the deplorable way in which the family treated her patient. She also shared that she told them she had some affairs to take care of so she got two days off. She took two trains and a bus by memory to get to Singh’s as it was the only place she remembered having food that would nourish her and make her feel a little like she was back in Trinidad.

I asked her why she stays if she doesn’t like the way she is being treated? She mentioned that she was working to put her kids through school. On the brighter side, she was going on an interview for a new patient the next day with a family she felt more aligned with. I told her I would pray for her that her interview went well.

I was then called up to place my order, so I said a quick goodbye. As I waited for them to package my order, I watched her with sadness thinking she was carrying the weight of her space in the world on her shoulders (and it showed). She reminded me of any number of my aunts. As I paid for my food, I went over to her and told her she is a strong woman and I wished her well with a parting hug.

As much as our encounter uplifted me –it also made me angry that she was being used and abused for cheap labor by an American family because they can and more importantly, because her labor and toil are convenient for their lifestyles.

In a time where the discussion of undocumented immigrants is so contentious, it is unfathomable to me that we have such hypocrisy at play where this issue is concerned. Essentially, our position is we don’t want you illegal and undocumented people here; except for in instances where you present a cheaper option that makes our lives simpler. I wonder if it has ever occurred to the lower half of the economic scale that their prized 1% white male and women counterparts are to blame for the undocumented numbers in the U.S.? I am here to shed some light.

Your prized 1 percenters are the ones who actively seek out women like this woman I spoke with to be wet nurses, doulas, companions and live-in nannies at a much lower margin than what any U.S.-based nanny would charge. I know because some of my own family members have had flights, housing, cell phones, wages and expenses paid for them to come here from abroad and do this work.

To further back what I already know to be true, I dug up some statistics from Pew Research Center. Here are some things you should know about undocumented immigrants and their impact on our workforce:

  • In 2015, there were 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. This number has been mostly unchanged given estimates made for 2009 – 2016 since there was a smaller sample size and a large margin of error in the numbers. According to this same study, unauthorized immigrants peaked in 2007 at 12.2 million a whopping 4% of the U.S. population. So much for undocumented immigrants taking over the U.S. and all of the “good” jobs.
  • Surprise…surprise! Mexicans are not among the majority of undocumented immigrants. Statistics from the same Pew Research Center study, suggest that from 2009 – 2016, the bulk of undocumented immigrants are coming from Asia and Central America countries outside of Mexico. I guess an Asian influx isn’t a problem, but let us also not forget their particular knowledge, skills, and abilities also facilitate our culture of convenience.
  • The U.S. Civilian Workforce includes 8 million undocumented immigrants accounting for 5% of those who were either working, unemployed or looking for work. How can undocumented immigrants be so unwanted and at the same time so assimilated into our workforce? More convenience and hypocrisy.

There are many moving parts to this discussion. My annoyance with it all is that our economy, businesses, and lives run on immigration. Yet, we dehumanize these people, throw around propaganda about banishing them and still when it suits us we hire them to do the work that no one else is willing to do. As HR professionals, we have to be just as willing to talk about how we improve societal conditions as we are to talk about the latest best practices to improve company culture. We also have to recognize that while our obligations are to the organizations we serve, we are on some level tied back to the overall perverted web of labor that exists here in the U.S.

We must seek the truth. Protect the truth and recognize when our ideals and practices are dissonant. I hope this helps.

To read the full article with statistics from The Pew Research Center study click here.

When Workforce Outsourcing Goes Wrong


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Some time ago, my dad was unemployed and picking up contract work when it was made available to him. In order to procure this contract work, he had to sign up with a few security agencies. In doing so, he eventually landed a full-time gig supervising security guards and investigators for a major supermarket chain. The nature of his employment agreement with this chain was that he was technically employed by the security firm but assigned to the supermarket as a worker- so no company perks, benefits or official employer-employee relationship. This supermarket is well-known for their concepts around creating democratized workforces that enjoy their work, have a passion for what they do and are rewarded in innumerable ways for such efforts. I’ll let you ponder that one.

Despite the purported mindful leadership at the helm, my father had no direction of what was right or wrong- where it concerned his employment. What do I mean?  As a supervisor, his job was to watch the cameras for any potential for theft. He also supervised a staff of investigators and store detectives. In addition, he was required to walk the store to observe customer behavior ensuring the overall security of the premises. When the store closed at night, he was responsible for making sure all remaining customers exited in a timely fashion so he could continue his nightly closing procedure. At least weekly, there would be a customer that felt his presence was “harassing” when he would pleasantly ask the customer to proceed to the nearest register, because they decided to shop for food at 9:50 p.m. and the store was closing in ten minutes. There would be one or two customers who tried to steal goods under his watch and he would act accordingly. There were managers that would gossip about him saying he “had an attitude” because he didn’t spend time chatting with them on the floor. In light of all of this, no complaint was ever logged with the agency he was employed by  and so he continued on doing his job. Yet there were very different views and perceptions about whether he was doing his job,


One day, he is told don’t show up to his normal store. Manager X didn’t want him there any longer, so the agency pulled him- no questions asked. The agency’s response was “that’s a tough store to work in and lots of guys have had issues with that manager- we’ll just reassign you.”  He was reassigned to a new store, things were great there until some months in- he receives notice that another manager wrote to the regional head to say that: “a customer allegedly complained about him harassing them at closing- suggesting that he should not be employed by any of the supermarket’s other locations.” He was never called by the agency to find out his side of the story. He had to proactively seek out answers- which was met with the following answer “we have a lot of issues with the managers there- we’ll get you working with some other clients.”

The problem with this entire situation is the employee-whether my dad or someone else is always in limbo. The supermarket and the agency operated under separate and very different standards of operation- which was confusing to the people working for either of them. The agency signed and enforced a contract with this company that basically prevented them from defending their employees. Their unwillingness to get to the bottom of the alleged complaint against my dad (which affected his employment) told me that they were far more concerned about tarnishing the business relationship than retaining him as a contractor. They set the precedent that, anytime any alleged customer complaint was filed or if a manager disliked any contractor they sent- the worker could expect to be ousted from that location.

He who fails to plan, plans to fail…

The biggest mistake they made in this partnership was not planning for a collaboration that ensured the seamless integration of workers whether directly employed or via the agency. You cannot have a successful workforce outsourcing situation where the rules are different for how employees work and are treated because of the nature of their employment. Since this company was quite possibly the biggest account they had-therefore contributing to a large portion of their revenue; the agency was unwilling to stand up for their workers when these issues arose. In return, they also had a hard time retaining people with this account because of the treatment.

The terms of any workforce outsourcing agreement need to be true to how each entity operates, while also ensuring the fair and consistent treatment of employees. Each party has to be willing to be flexible in their terms-as the relationship continues, to allow for tweaks to the service level agreement in place. As a vendor, your primary focus cannot be the money you will make on the account. You also have to seriously consider your ability to hire and retain the talent you will need to sustain the account.

Here are some other items to consider when entering a workforce outsourcing contract:

1) Did you ask about the company culture? You need to. Understanding and deciding how your workforce will blend with the existing client workforce is an important consideration for how successful you will be.

2) Creating a conflict mediation practice. Just like the client values their employees, you do too (hopefully). If you do, it is important that anyone you hire knows how they can resolve an issue should one arise. There should also be a collective agreement between you and the client of how these issues will be resolved.

3) How do you socialize the onboarding of new staff? Will the client simply have people show up to work on Monday or will there be a formal meet and greet? Whether an employee is a contractor or directly employed by the company, it is important for management to communicate the acquisition of new talent and communicate the expectations for how everyone will work together.

4) What can you do to make “contractors” feel like they are a part of the company? Can you afford to offer contractors a discount or pro-rated benefits? Making people feel more like an employee even if the relationship is temporary, can increase productivity and improve their engagement in the business and operations.

Customers don’t care who employees work for when it comes to patronizing your business. They know that they expect to have a great experience and if something should go wrong- they will be provided with a consistent and speedy resolution. Spending time in the beginning to develop and incorporate some basic talent management practices into your workforce outsourcing agreement will help to assimilate these new people into the current workforce seamlessly.

Ready to develop or improve your talent management strategy for your business? Contact me.

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