The shadow workforce is something you’ve probably noticed, though you may not have heard the term. If you have ever been approached outside a home improvement store by a person asking if you need work, or you’ve noticed a group of people standing on a major intersection, apparently waiting, you’ve seen the shadow workforce. Essentially most of these folks are undocumented workers, though some have the legal right to work in the US, and they are also called day laborers because they often depend upon day to day offers of work instead of holding a standard job.
Many of these workers do jobs that most Americans don’t want or won’t take. Due to the fact that many do not have the legal right to work in the US, they can be subject to considerable abuse by employers. They may be paid less than the minimum wage. The work the shadow workforce does often includes yard work, crop picking, construction work, et cetera, which tends to be difficult manual labor. Workplace conditions may result in injury from which these workers have no protection. In fact, as many as one in five workers may be injured every day while working, but they cannot fall back on disability or expect recompense from their employers.
There are many economists who acknowledge that the shadow workforce needs to exist, in order to do the jobs that “need doing” but that most Americans won’t do, especially at pay under minimum or living wages. However, it is illegal to hire many of these workers unless they possess the legal right to work in the US. Some states look to solutions like creating migrant worker passes to fill labor needs especially in the farming and construction industry. Others suggest that citizens or residents of the US should fill these jobs, and that both agriculture and construction should pay accordingly.
In the US about 87% of the shadow workforce is Latino, and about three-quarters are not legally authorized to work in the US. Less than 10% were born in the United States. Though these workers don’t always have citizenship in common with other citizens, they are like most Americans in many ways. Most attend church regularly, just under half rent or own their homes (and are not homeless), and about a fourth of the shadow workforce is involved in community activities.
What the shadow workforce lacks tends to be protection from abuses by employers. Undocumented workers can’t complain, since to do so would probably mean being deported. Some legislators have suggested stiff penalties for employers of undocumented workers, especially because these workers are so liable to abuse, with no legal recourse. Stiff fines might also cut down on the draw for illegal immigration to the US. Employers who regularly employ migrant workers or the shadow workforce counter that it's extremely hard to find people with permission to work here who will perform this type of work, and that adopting a pay scale determined by the government would raise costs to the consumer.