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Accents: Immigrant Workers - Part 1

Monday, November 25, 2002 at 1:52 PM

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Cleveland's industrial might was built on the backs of its immigrant workers. They toiled in steel mills and factories doing jobs that others avoided. Today most immigrants come from Europe, but a growing number are from Latin America and Asia. Today we continue Accents, our in-depth examination of ethnicity and immigration in northeast Ohio. ideastream's Mike West has this report on the economic impact today's immigrant workers are having on our region.

Mike West: About 60 companies are manning tables at this community center on Cleveland’s west side. It’s all part of a job fair organized by Catholic Charities Services. It’s open to all job seekers but is mostly aimed at Latinos. About 500 people attended, offering a good selection for employers. Rofino Escobar has been in America for 3 years and is looking for a job today.

How’s it going looking for work - is it tough or easy?

Rofino Escobar: A little problem sometimes, sometimes it’s very easy, I don’t know…

MW: What kind of work do you want?

RE: Cleaning, cleaning for…

MW: Janitor?

RE: I don’t really know. This is mountain size, you understand… maintenance?

MW: In the stores - like when they close?

RE: When it’s closed or when it’s open, because in Super K the store is open 24 hours, it never close, clean and scrub the floor, mopping floors - everything.

MW: Escobar is an example of the kind of worker who is willing to take jobs others may not be interested in. Sonia Cruz-Matos is a program director for Catholic Charities Services. Her organization provides employment training and placement services all year round. She says business managers are hard pressed to find people who will stay in unskilled and low paying jobs.

Sonia Cruz-Matos: I find that in all races there’s a lack of work ethic. So whether you’re Black, Hispanic, White - there’s a lack of work ethic.

MW: Cruz-Matos says it’s best to hire immigrants as soon as possible before they become too Americanized.

SC: When you have someone that comes from another country, that’s the time to get ‘em because their ethics are there and I think… I was born in the United States, I lived in Puerto Rico and I moved back to the United States and I see where people they get lax when they move to the United States. And I see it every day - I’ve been doing social services for 7 years and I see it everyday.

MW: In the early 1900s, eastern Europeans, Irish and Slavic immigrants did the dirty work in northeast Ohio mills and factories. Most of those jobs have become high paying, union positions and many require skills and training. That’s left today’s immigrant workforce toiling in places like this Cleveland fruit and vegetable packing plant.

Greg Fritz: They need work in order to survive here and they’ll do this kind of work that more and more your traditional American workforce won’t do - like they won’t work in a 40-degree cold, wet room for 10 or 12 hours a day cutting produce, where your Hispanic and your immigrants will. And I applaud them for that, they really work hard.

MW: Greg Fritz is the general manager of Produce Packaging, the company has been in business since 1914. He is a fourth-generation Italian immigrant. Fritz says his family worked hard and realized the American dream and now he gives his 120 employees the same chance.

GF: There seems to be a growing number of Hispanic and Oriental people in the Cleveland area. You know back when I was a kid and came down here and worked it was Whites and Blacks and that’s it and now it’s like a little United Nations down here. Especially in my company where we use a lot of unskilled labor. A lot of people just coming over here from wherever. Lots of our workers don’t even speak English, they speak Spanish or they speak Vietnamese… whatever.

MW: The company pays $7 an hour to start and offers medical benefits and a 401k plan to workers who stick around for 3 months. Fritz says the Caucasians he hires normally don’t make it past lunchtime.

GF: It’s hard to find white people that will do this work. It’s hard to find you inner-city Blacks that’ll stay here for a long period of time, they stay for 3 months, 6 months but then they find other work to do.

MW: Not everyone is happy about having a foreign-born workforce filling jobs just a few blocks away from some of Cleveland’s poorest neighborhoods. Kevin Conwell is a Cleveland City councilman who represents Ward 9, near University Hospitals.

Kevin Conwell: I think businesses really need to focus on the residents and the American citizens. When we put people to work in our own country and our citizens of our country them our residents will have dollars to take care of their families and spend money to buy products from some of these same businesses. And when you put people to work you keep crime down as well as keep families together.

MW: Conwell wants companies that hire immigrants to pay better wages in order to attract the people he represents on Cleveland’s economically troubled east side where unemployment rates are just over 12%. That compares to the regional and state unemployment rate of close to 6%.

KC: Some of these companies they exploit people, that’s the reality right there. They don’t want to spend dollars to give meaningful jobs and meaningful benefits, that’s what they want to do. What they want to do is pay you minimum wage. A lot of times foreigners when they come here to this country and they work they’ll do more than 8 hours. They’ll work from 9 to 5 but if their work isn’t completed they’ll go from 9 to 6 or 7 because they’re getting more dollars than they were getting when they were out of this country.

MW: Conwell accuses some employers of using immigrants because he says they’re far less likely to join unions or report workplace safety problems. He says many of the single working parents in his ward would welcome jobs many immigrants now take, but he says they can’t accept the low pay.

But Produce Packaging owner Greg Fritz doesn’t see things that way. He says immigrants are an essential ingredient in the future of northeast Ohio’s economy.

GF: Down in this food terminal all these vendors here started from parents who immigrated to the United States they’ve all joined together in this one area to sell produce wholesale and certainly they’re contributing to the economy in cleveland. We employ probably all together 500 people down here and that’s contributing to Cleveland’s economic success.

MW: Employment experts say there is also a growing need to look outside of the United States for white collar and medical jobs. For example, University Hospitals has hired a number of nurses from the Philippines, and is also looking to Puerto Rico for help. You’re also likely to see teachers and doctors who come to Cleveland from India to help fill a void in those professions. In Cleveland, Mike West, 90.3.

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