Saturday, October 02, 2010

The Least Of These Among You

I've been deeply disturbed by the flap over Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman's employment of an undocumented worker. Yes, she's being Zoe-Bairded during a close campaign for the California governorship, shabby politics at its best/worst. Yes, she's apparently a hypocrite for continuing to employ her nanny/housekeeper/go-fer right up until she decided to run for governor and realized what a liability that employee could be, at which point she summarily fired her.

But what is most disturbing is the way the story has been covered by the press, something Tim Rutten noted in his latest column. The mainstream press has been glorying in the opportunity to wallow in the "gotcha" journalism that is apparently more fun than actually examining just what about the story is so significant.

...There's nothing particularly remarkable about the fact that the billionaire former EBay chief executive and her neurosurgeon husband employed an undocumented immigrant. At some point, most Californians knowingly or unknowingly employ a worker without papers or do business with someone who does. Merely going out to dinner, having your car washed or hiring a contractor to work on your house makes that so.

What really ought to concern people most are Diaz Santillan's allegations that during the nine years she worked for Whitman and her husband, they repeatedly forced her to put in more than her agreed-upon hours without compensation and refused to pay her mileage even though she had to use her own car to perform household errands. Whitman denies all this, but she does agree that she fired Diaz Santillan within days of the June 2009 conversation in which the housekeeper asked for help in legalizing her status. That may not be labor code-style mistreatment, but it's an odd way to treat somebody who'd worked in your home and taken care of your children for nearly a decade and who Whitman herself describes as "a member of our extended family." Lots of tough love, one surmises, in that house.

If Ms. Diaz Santillan's are true, and they certainly might be, she is a pretty good example of just how the undocumented worker is victimized by employers. The "illegal" is vulnerable and knows it, and so does his/her employer, who takes full advantage of that vulnerability. That kind of behavior by an employer is horrendous from the standpoint of simple human decency. It's also the kind of behavior that I think should disqualify one for public office, but I recognize that even in California I'm in the minority when it comes to that opinion.

Rutten, who I sense agrees with me on that take, does raise the right questions, something too many of his journalistic colleagues overlooked.

The human and economic complexities of such a situation are unlikely to get much of a hearing in a round of "gotcha" media coverage. But they would if the media compared the realities of Whitman's own household with her campaign speeches denouncing any path to citizenship for undocumented workers and urging more raids, fines and suspensions of business licenses for those who employ them.

Well said, Mr. Rutten. Well said.

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Blogger shrimplate said...

Whitman is hideous.

8:24 AM  

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