Making it in Massachusetts

Deep in the heart of the vast, 175,000 square foot production floor at the Riverside Manufacturing Co. in New Bedford, where sewing machines clatter and pressing machines spew out steam, lies Santa Cardoso’s kingdom. There, the women of Assembly 2 put the finishing touches on Giorgio Armani men’s suits and Joseph Abboud blazers. They sew on the lining and insert the padding, giving shape and body to the coat. Cardoso is Assembly 2’s section supervisor, and all but one of the 40 women under her command are Portuguese-speaking immigrants from the Azores, the Cape Verde islands, and the Portuguese mainland. Cardoso came to New Bedford from the Azores herself 22 years ago. A stylish and charming mother of two —an Azorean Audrey Hepburn—she has worked in the industry almost since she arrived in the US as a teenager. “When we first came over here, it was like part of our religion,” she says. “The factories hired everyone. You’d finish school and go into the factory. It was a way of life that was preached to us.”

Despite the much-publicized woes of the Massachusetts textile industry, immigrants like Cardoso have kept the faith and reaped the rewards. Over the past two and a half years, Riverside has added 250 new jobs—surviving, even thriving, because expensive men’s tailored clothing requires skills that can’t be matched in factories in Mexico and Macao. And 80 percent of the Italian- owned company’s 625 New Bedford employees are of Portuguese extraction, with an estimated 60 percent of them immigrants, according to Riverside chief operating officer Anthony Sapienza.

“Immigrant workers are the backbone of our company and most of the clothing companies in this area,” says Sapienza.

It’s the same story at KGR, a women’s sportswear manufacturer located in a restored mill in the historic district of blue-collar (and predominantly Latino) Lawrence. There, the pattern makers learned their trade growing up in Italy; the sample stitchers are all newcomers from Vietnam, the Dominican Republic, and Turkey. “In the apparel industry, immigrant workers are the industry,” says company CEO Chet Sidell. “Behind the sewing machine, 95 percent of the people are immigrants.”

This reliance on immigrants isn’t limited to traditional industries, like clothing and textiles. It’s true in the “new economy” as well. There, you’ll find major high-tech firms recruiting engineers and research scientists from countries like Israel, India, and China. But the bulk of immigrants employed in high tech fill assembly-line production jobs that require less complicated skills than the stitchers and pressers at Riverside and KGR.

At Boston’s Zoom Telephonics, which manufactures modems and other computer products, half the company’s 309 US employees and almost all the workers at its South Boston production facility are foreign-born, mostly from Vietnam. On a recent afternoon, a group of women clustered on the production floor packing digital cameras included immigrants from Vietnam, China, Kosovo, and the Dominican Republic. None could speak more than a few words of English and none could speak their co-workers’ languages. The company’s lunch area features microwaves so the Vietnamese workers can cook their rice, and the production floor smells ever so faintly of ginger and lemon grass.

Immigrants are once again emerging as the new proletariat.

At Boston Scientific Corp., in Watertown, a tour of the assembly floor of the company’s metals division, which makes filters and guidewires used in non-invasive medical procedures, reveals a virtual League of Nations. In one production area, all but three or four of the 80 workers bent over microscopes and wearing blue lab coats are foreign- born. They come from a long list of countries, including Vietnam, South Korea, India, Greece, Italy, Cape Verde, the Azores, Haiti, and Guatemala. Their numbers include refugees from the Cambodian Holocaust and the Afghan and Angolan civil wars. Two years ago at Christmas, Boston Scientific’s director of manufacturing, Randy Young, asked a subordinate to compile a list of languages spoken at the plant in order to say “Happy Holidays” in everyone’s native tongue; he came up with 31.

The factories of eastern Massachusetts have long provided a point of entry for immigrants into the job market. In the early part of the century, the immigrants were mostly of European descent: French Canadians in the mills of Lawrence and Lowell, Portuguese in the factories of New Bedford and Fall River. Today, the countries of origin of Massachusetts’s more than 700,000 foreign-born residents have changed, with newcomers from Brazil, El Salvador, Russia, India, and China heading the list in the 1990s.

And many of them are working in factories. In 1990, immigrants filled 25 percent of Massachusetts blue-collar jobs in manufacturing, according to The Changing Workforce, a report by Andrew M. Sum and W. Neal Fogg of Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Market Studies and published by MassINC and Citizens Bank in November. By 1996-97, that percentage had increased to one third. In a period of sluggish overall population growth and an acute labor shortage, the Massachusetts manufacturing economy is once again increasingly dependent on foreign-born workers. Just as in the first half of the century, immigrants are emerging as the new proletariat.

The Cost-Benefit Controversy

In the past decade, immigration has sparked an increasingly contentious debate across the nation. There was California’s Proposition 187, approved by voters in 1994, which denied social services, education, and non-emergency health care to illegal immigrants. The courts have ruled the measure unconstitutional, but they cannot strike down the sentiment behind it. Sixteen states, including California, Florida, and Texas, have passed “English Only” laws. Border patrols along the Rio Grande and Coast Guard boats along the Florida coast have stepped up the war against illegal immigrants. And it’s not just the poor and the desperate being kept out. The federal government has imposed a cap on visas for highly skilled workers, much to the dismay of US high tech firms. Politicians like former California governor Pete Wilson and current Reform Party presidential hopeful Pat Buchanan have used nativist rhetoric to inflame passions and garner votes. And academics spar endlessly over the costs and benefits of extending a shot at the American dream to someone’s uncle from Hong Kong or cousin from Haiti.

Critics say that, by increasing the supply of unskilled labor, immigrants depress wages for American workers.

Proponents of more-open borders insist that immigrants are a boon to the economy, reviving decaying inner cities and even helping to shore up the Social Security system. At the high end of the immigration spectrum, engineers from India and China, “generate wealth for the economy and drive industry,” according to Lowell Sachs, manager of federal concerns for Sun Microsystems, the Palo Alto, California-based computer giant which employs 4,000 workers at its plant in Burlington. At the low end, immigrants provide services and fill jobs that native-born workers shun.

Critics see it differently. They contend that by increasing the supply of unskilled labor, immigrants depress wages for American workers. “It’s a simple economic law,” says George Borjas, professor of public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “If there were fewer workers, wages would be rising. Because of immigrants, wages are not growing as fast as they would otherwise.” Borjas, himself a Cuban refugee who came to the US at the age of eight, argues that high rates of immigration redistribute as much as $160 billion from workers to employers and consumers of these services.

“Increasing the supply of immigrant workers is beneficial for owners of capital and bad for labor,” says Steven A. Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, DC. “It is common sense.” Camarota also argues that, in large numbers, immigrants place an added burden on public schools and other services. Relying on unskilled foreign-born workers often means importing poverty, he says.

The application of these national anti-immigration arguments to Massachusetts is dubious, however. Even Camarota concedes that the overall impact of immigration in Massachusetts may be “more moderate” than in the five states that have the largest numbers of foreign-born residents: California, New York, Florida, Texas, and Illinois. (Although immigrants make up 11 percent of the Massachusetts population—the highest level since 1950—the Commonwealth ranks eighth nationally in the number of foreign-born residents, according to Camarota.) The makeup of Massachusetts immigrants is also more diverse than in many states and less likely to result in highly concentrated enclaves, he notes. And immigration to Massachusetts has been “steady” over the years, he says, rather than a sudden influx, which can be disruptive, socially and economically. Finally, the immigrant population in Massachusetts has somewhat higher skills than that in other states, says Camarota. Still, he notes that in 1997 the rate of poverty among Massachusetts immigrant families was 17 percent as opposed to 12 percent in the native-born population.

But it is the wage-competition argument that holds the least water in Massachusetts. The Center for Labor Market Studies estimates that 175,650 foreign-born Massachusetts residents arrived in the US between 1990 and 1997, a period when the state’s population increased by just 101,256. Without this level of immigration, the Massachusetts population would have actually declined in the ’90s. Even with the new arrivals, the labor force barely grew at all during the decade. In Massachusetts, it’s scarcity of workers, not hordes of foreigners competing with embattled natives for scarce jobs, that threatens the state’s red-hot economic growth.

High-tech companies and universities have been the most vocal about federal immigration restrictions that keep them from bringing in scientists and engineers from abroad. Sun Microsystems has been unable to fill 2,000 professional positions nationwide because of visa limits, according to Heidi Wilson, the company’s corporate immigration manager. But low unemployment rates have made filling jobs a challenge at all levels of the Massachusetts economy.

“The number one problem for business is the shortage of workers,” says Carolyn Boviard, director of the state’s Office of Economic Development. For that reason, Boviard sees the influx of immigrants as a net gain for the state. “It is a win-win proposition for employers and, more importantly, for these folks that have risked so much to come to this country and better themselves,” she says. “I don’t see a downside.”

Personnel directors at manufacturing firms agree. “There are no people out there,” complains Margaret Timledge, director of human resources at KGR. “The job market is so dried up.” Adds Karen Player, her opposite number at Zoom, “In the state of Massachusetts, it is hard to hire anyone today.” In order to keep its workers, Zoom offers its production-line workers benefits including medical and dental coverage, disability, life insurance, two weeks vacation, and educational reimbursements.

Lack of workers can be a problem even in areas where jobless rates are relatively high. Although New Bedford has an unemployment rate almost twice that of the rest of the state, Riverside’s Sapienza says that finding experienced stitchers is difficult—especially among native-born Americans. And that despite Riverside’s union-shop pay scale (an average wage of $10 an hour) and benefits. “You can’t recruit stitchers and pressers at Dartmouth and Swansea high schools,” he says. “By and large, suburban and working-class Americans are not attracted to this kind of work. They don’t have a needle trades history or culture.”

That history and culture is something that the Portuguese do have. “It kind of runs in the blood,” says Riverside’s Santa Cardoso. While Cardoso was growing up in the Azores, her mother worked as a seamstress making wedding dresses and men’s suits. And although she has had opportunities to get out of the factory herself—she went to high school at night and later got a degree as a medical assistant—she wound up coming back to the industry. “I couldn’t see myself in an office,” she says.

Riverside couldn’t survive without immigrant workers, Sapienza maintains. Frank Manning, president of Zoom, won’t go that far. But he does say that, without his Vietnamese workers, he might not be testing and packing modems here. Without immigrant labor, “you’d do less in Massachusetts,” he says. “Some companies do that already. But we believe in the importance of short distances and tight communications.”

Immigration critic Camarota sees the labor shortage issue as somewhat of a “red herring”—and no way to make policy. Employers always complain that there isn’t enough labor—in good times and bad, he says. And what difference would it make to native-born Americans if the jobs held by immigrants at Riverside or Zoom didn’t exist or were shipped off-shore? “If a job goes overseas or if the immigrant comes here and gets the same job, it isn’t exactly clear from a jobs point of view how we are better off,” he points out. “It isn’t clear how the natives are benefiting.”

Tower of Babel or Workplace of the Future?

Zoom first started employing Vietnamese immigrants back in the 1980s. In those days, Manning says, almost all the production work was done overseas. At one point, the company needed to rework a particular product; six or seven workers were hired on for local production. The “star” of the group, he says, was an immigrant from Vietnam, who was soon hired as a regular employee. As Zoom increased its production in Boston, the factory floor began filling up with Vietnamese.

That first Vietnamese employee was “the seed crystal and it crystallized around him,” says Manning. “We have had a lot of success with the Vietnamese. They are excellent people and good workers.”

In Lawrence, which still calls itself the “Immigrant City,” KGR’s Sidell is also a major booster of his immigrant employees. “I have a tremendous amount of respect for them,” he says. “Immigrants appreciate so much more what we have in America than we do. And the blend is an exciting mix. I love having them.”

“Immigrants appreciate so much more what we have in America than we do.”

Still, the reliance on immigrant workers presents companies with special challenges. Language is one. Although companies like Zoom and Riverside promote production supervisors from the floor—usually immigrants who speak some English—filling jobs in the upper ranks gets more complicated. When Riverside recently looked for a new human resources director and a nurse, job descriptions included fluency in both English and Portuguese. That limited the applicant field. At Zoom, production manager Ed Portash is a native-born American whose knowledge of Vietnamese is limited to “Hi” and “Thank You.” His Asian employees don’t do much better: Only one in five speaks conversational English. Portash relies heavily on his group leaders and his assistant production manager, bilingual Vietnamese immigrant Julie Le, to translate.

“It makes it tough but you find ways to communicate,” he says. “If all the supervisors were out sick and Julie was out on the same day, would I have a tough day? Yes.”

And Zoom’s Manning prefers to hire Vietnamese employees, rather than a wider smorgasbord of immigrant groups, because it makes managing his workers easier. He doesn’t want to waste time translating instructions into a multitude of languages. “We don’t want a Tower of Babel here,” he says.

Language aside, cultural differences can also require special sensitivity. Elvira Pina, an immigrant from the Azores who trains employees at Boston Scientific, notes that if something goes wrong, immigrants can be prone to take it particularly hard. “We have to sit down and talk to them so they don’t view it so seriously,” she says. “We have to show them the positive side, not the negative. They like to feel proud of what they do.”

One problem that Pina has had to overcome is the attitudes of some immigrant men, particularly those from India, who weren’t used to taking orders from a woman. Although they wouldn’t express such feelings directly, “you could tell by their facial expressions,” she says.

And employers find themselves making surprising accommodations. Judy Sacks, program director for refugee employment services at Jewish Vocational Service in Boston, recalls one employer complaining that his Bosnian and Somali Muslim employees were abruptly walking off the production floor at prayer time. (Muslims pray five times a day in the direction of Mecca.) And during the month of Ramadan, when Muslims are required to wash their feet before prayer, some were doing just that in the bathroom sink, to the dismay of their non-Muslim colleagues. Finally, the company designated a sink for the purpose. “There have to be accommodations on both sides,” Sacks notes.

At Riverside, one headache for management is that many employees like to go back to “the old country”—in this case, usually the Azores, in the Atlantic Ocean 900 miles west of Portugal—for five and six weeks at a time. Absences of that length upset the company’s production chain. How does Riverside solve the problem? “You negotiate it. You negotiate it. You negotiate it,” Sapienza says.

For the immigrants themselves, manufacturing jobs can provide a start—and a stake—in the Massachusetts economy. “The first job, whatever it is, enables them to put something on their résumé,” says JVS’s Sacks. “They learn to interact in English with colleagues and their supervisors.” But it is difficult to see how the employees packing digital cameras on the Zoom production floor and unable to speak a word of English will make much progress in the job world. That’s where training—particularly instruction in English as a Second Language—becomes crucial. At Zoom, the company reimburses workers up to $1,500 a year for continuing education. Other companies offer on-site ESL, on the premise that employees are more apt to take advantage of classes at the workplace than somewhere else. At Boston Scientific, for example, the company offers two hours of on-site ESL per week, with one hour coming out of the company’s time and one hour out of the employee’s.

A Brave New Workplace

Companies don’t offer these learning opportunities out of the goodness of their hearts. As manufacturing has declined in Massachusetts, both the older companies that remain and newer companies starting out have come under increasing pressure to modernize their equipment and streamline their production processes. Manufacturers need their front-line workers to be more flexible and adaptable.

Ten years ago, many companies saw their production workers merely as “human robots,” notes Katherine Archer, director of workplace education programs at the Watertown-based Continuing Education Institute, which runs on-site ESL programs at a number of companies, including Boston Scientific. But in today’s downsized work forces, companies demand that employees work in teams and perform a variety of tasks. “Even assembly line workers need to be able to talk,” she says. “It is more participatory. It is a different ballgame.”

Reliance on immigrant labor makes the challenge of a flexible workplace even more complicated. At Boston Scientific, with its panoply of ethnic groups, all employees are required to speak—and read and write—some English before being hired. In fact, it was at the behest of employee teams, back in 1992, that the company made everyone speak English at work. No one on the shop floor wanted a Tower of Babel any more than management did. Since then some 800 employees have gone through ESL courses there.

“It improves English, confidence, and the quality of their work,” says Young, the director of manufacturing, of the on-site classes. “It lets them know that we are partners with them.” And trainer Pina notes that before the English-only policy, “A lot of times we used to have to use translators to explain things to them. Now, they speak up and do presentations.”

One worker who can now speak up is Olga Poco, an assembly line employee at Boston Scientific’s metals division. A native of the Azores, Poco grew up in Angola, leaving in 1975 when the Portuguese colony gained independence and descended into civil war. She and her husband and children moved to Brazil, eventually coming to America in 1986. At Boston Scientific, she took ESL classes. And last year, through a company program, she received her high school equivalency diploma. The 15-month course involved four hours a week of after-work classes, with Boston Scientific providing the place and the teachers, and culminated in a cap-and-gown graduation ceremony at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. “The company gave me a great opportunity,” she says.

Still, immigrants don’t exactly have it made in Massachusetts. Over the 1995-97 period, the median income of immigrant families was only 60 percent that of families with a native-born householder, according to the Center for Labor Market Studies. In that same period, 40 percent of immigrant children were living in poverty or near poverty. And 30 percent of the 16-to-64-year-old foreign-born population in recent years lacked a high school diploma.

Various state agencies are trying to address some of these problems. One example is the Department of Employment and Training’s multi-million-dollar work force training grants, aimed at upgrading the skills of workers in Massachusetts companies. Nine of the 180 grants for training and technical assistance awarded since June 1998 include ESL components. The Office of Economic Development’s Economic Stabilization Trust offers loan guarantees to small and midsize manufacturers in an effort to shore up the non-high tech manufacturing sector where so many immigrants are employed. And the state Office for Refugees and Immigrants contracts with a number of service providers—like the Jewish Vocational Service—to help immigrants get work and facilitate their assimilation into American society.

But no one in state government or industry has come up with a comprehensive plan that takes account of the state’s growing reliance on immigrant labor and tries to smooth the path of newcomers in the state’s economy. Immigrant advocates contend that greater state investment in something as simple as language training could make a big difference. “There are long lines for ESL,” says Muriel Heiberger, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition. “The availability of ESL in the work force is very limited. English is the key factor in economic mobility and social integration.”

And should the good times end and jobs disappear somewhere down the line, there could be greater problems—particularly in the manufacturing sector where Massachusetts immigrants are employed at a rate almost twice that of native born Americans. “Some time in the next 20 years we will be in a significant recession and then what happens?” asks Camarota, of the Center for Immigration Studies. “You don’t want to look around and say that all those immigrants are the ones driving down wages. Just like right now you don’t want to say that immigrants are our salvation.”

For her part, Office of Economic Development director Boviard is confident that, even if the boom doesn’t last forever, the state—and its work force—will still be in good shape. “We are well positioned to weather any downturn nationally because of our diversified economy,” she insists. “That helps all of us working, and particularly immigrants who are holding jobs that sometimes can be the most vulnerable.”

Meet the Author
Meanwhile, the American dream seems alive and well among thousands of Massachusetts immigrants. Sometimes it can be downright inspiring. In New Bedford, there is Santa Cardoso, with sewing and stitching in her blood but determined that her two children will have a college education—and a better life. And there is Boston Scientific’s Olga Poco, after 13 years in this country, becoming a US citizen last September. After living in three other countries, she says, “The US is the best.”

Neil Miller teaches journalism at Tufts University. His most recent book is Out of the Past: Gay and Lesbian History from 1869 to the Present.