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Going underground

This – Washington Senate Bill 5926 – could go some truly interesting places and kick over some significant rocks, in the area of illegal immigration.

Informal reports in the last couple of years have begun to suggest that the construction industry, not crop agriculture as in the past, is the largest attractor of workers who have no permission to be in this country. One report from the Pew Hispanic Center last March estimated 24% of all workers were working in agriculture, 17% in cleaning, 14% in construction and 12% in food preparation. Of these categories, construction has been the boom and – if the national construction frenzy maintains for a while – it may soon surpass agriculture.

Hence this statement of intent on the newly-introduced SB5926:

The legislature finds that some current estimates place the percentage of unreported employment in Washington state’s construction industry at between twenty percent and fifty percent, although solid data on this phenomenon is not readily available in Washington. The legislature also finds that unreported construction employment may result in the loss of a worker’s employment rights and protections, including workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance compensation. The legislature further finds that unreported construction employment also could deny the state the revenues it is due, including sales taxes, business and occupation taxes, and other business fees paid to the state. The legislature declares that the underground economy in this state may permit unfair conditions to exist against persons working in the construction industry who do follow the employment laws and appropriately pay taxes. It is the legislature’s intent to determine the extent and potential costs to the state of the underground economy in the construction industry.

It would do that, to begin with, by setting up a legislative task force. Such creatures usually merit the yawning reactions they generally get, but this one – because of its explicitly investigative mission – could matter quite a bit even if it never develops any legislation. The information it uncovers, if it has any aggressiveness at all, could make a difference. (By the way, see also the item on this on the Seattle Stranger‘s Slog.)

Nationally, we can hire all the border guards and erect all the fences we want, but illegals will keep coming as long as (a) conditions back home are deeply unsatisfying and (b) as long as they can get satisfaction from the economy here. Genuine solutions to the porous border problem clearly will have to do mostly with one or both of those issues. We have limited ability to address the first, but we can address the second, at least to some extent. For all the harrumphing going on elsewhere, the Washington legislature is now navigating closer to the heart of the issue than most.

(Lead sponsor is Senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, joined by Senators Clements, Kastama, Weinstein, Fairley, Keiser, Marr, Tom, Murray, Oemig, Sheldon and Kline, all Democrats.)

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  1. Chuck Butcher Chuck Butcher February 12, 2007

    I am a construction contractor, I have taken the stance that illegal hiring depresses construction wages. For my trouble I am called heartless and lumped with racists. Funny thing when I’m advocating higher wages for people I employ. For interesting reading, follow the time track of the flattening and decrease in residential construction wages and compare to national events.

  2. Clark Gilman Clark Gilman March 13, 2007

    I represent Residential Carpenters Union 816 and I am very exctied about Senate Bill 5926. I wanted to make a minor correction that means a lot to me. The bill does not look at “how many illegal immigrants are in construction”. Unreported employment means the contractor never remitted payroll taxes on the carpenters’ behalf.

    The legislation is intended to do two things: To estimate the number of workers “off the books” in construction. To estimate the amount of state revenue lost to these cheating contractors.

    I was involved with requesting this legislation. I am one of many US Citizen, english speaking, native born house-framers who have worked off the books for years.

    There are many Latino immigrants on our jobsites today. They are hard workers and good people. Unfortunately for them, the same contractors who paid me cash are glad to pay them cash. The employers are the ones not paying their fair share.

    The bill has passed the Senate (Sat March 10)and goes to the House next week. I really appreciate the legislature taking a hard look at the underground economy.

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