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Feb 13, 2012

They pushed the cleaning carts into the office hallway at the end of the day.

They emptied trash cans, wiped down doorways and cleaned office windows, vacuumed the rugs and then moved on to the bathrooms, sharing something in Spanish and laughing — right when I left for home and needed to use the bathroom.

At first I was little angry, not at the ladies cleaning the bathrooms, but just at the timing of it all. Not too far away from home meant I could wait, but still. Then a little shame reddened my cheeks; these ladies did this everyday for who knows how many hours and days per week.

Who takes all those “menial” jobs?

Was I ashamed for them? I mean, it’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it, right?

Play that out over multiple other jobs including hotel service jobs, warehouse jobs, agriculture jobs, waste management jobs — there’s an endless demand for light-skilled physical labor worldwide (not always light-skilled, but still). Yet, in America a few decades ago, the influx of immigrants (legal and illegal) gave us a new economic strata, one that aspired for a better life but taking on the low-paying jobs, which were higher paying than from where they came.

And then they stayed. Many became Americans, but some didn’t; and we allowed this new socio-economic group to grow. We gave them the jobs we didn’t want to do, didn’t feel we had to do. Because menial is for the sub-par, the sub-standard, not-of-this-world folk.

We’ve done the same thing since the founding of the United States of America. Justifying the economics of institutionalized slavery goes back many thousands of years; it’s embedded into our supposedly civilized DNA like a rogue gene.

Jump to the 21st century: Most of the smart devices and other technology we buy in this country are all made in China. More specifically, a city called Shenzhen, with more than 14 million people. The conditions in which they work in these tech manufacturing plants are dismal compared to our own American standards, and yet we crave the smart “stuff” for price points within our ever-dwindling middle-class reach. Somebody else can do the dirty work.

Americans aren’t taking these jobs back

But you know, I’ve been cleaning my own home for as long as I can remember, toilets and all, among many non-glamorous tasks over the years, some of which has helped to keep food on the table and a roof over my family. I see many of you nodding along as well, closing your eyes and thanking the god of your choice that you had the work with a living wage when you had it.

However, you may have read about the Alabama immigration law and the back-breaking jobs that were supposed to be freed up for (legal) Americans are just not being filled. The argument is that “illegals” are taking jobs from legal Americans.

But so far in Alabama the reality is Americans aren’t taking the jobs back. The reasons are plentiful, but primarily a living wage just can’t be made and there are little to no other benefits. There are those businesses that are evolving their business models to create more competitive pay scales, but it’s still too early to see if that’ll help them fill the jobs they’ll need to remain competitive locally and globally.

Changing the way we do business is a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it. Who’s it gonna be? You with me?

You can find more from Kevin Grossman on his Marcom HRsay blog.