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Ethics of Hiring Illegal Immigrants

Should restaurants (and other companies) stop hiring illegal immigrants? What would happen if they did? The question is posed here, on the NYT‘s “Diner’s Journal” blog: What If Restaurants Stopped Hiring Illegal Immigrants? What if the restaurant industry — one of the largest employers of immigrants, a good number of whom, it is no secret, […]

Should restaurants (and other companies) stop hiring illegal immigrants? What would happen if they did?

The question is posed here, on the NYT‘s “Diner’s Journal” blog: What If Restaurants Stopped Hiring Illegal Immigrants?

What if the restaurant industry — one of the largest employers of immigrants, a good number of whom, it is no secret, are undocumented — had to do it all above board? (According to 2008 estimates from the Pew Hispanic Center, illegal immigrants make up about 20 percent of the nation’s chefs, head cooks and cooks, and about 28 percent of its dishwashers.) That’s the intention, at least, of the Obama Administration’s intensified crackdown on employers that hire illegal immigrants, with businesses including restaurants now facing more scrutiny than they have in decades.

Some restaurateurs say that the cost of a meal would shoot up if they were forced to comply with immigration and labor laws….

So, let’s think through some of the ethically-relevant factors.

First, refusing to hire (or choosing to fire) illegal immigrants would drive up the cost of a restaurant meal. That would be bad for restaurant customers. Now, most people think of restaurant meals as a luxury, so a slight increase in price isn’t exactly ethically abhorrent. But when we think of an increase in the price of restaurant meals, we shouldn’t only think of fine dining: such increases would presumably also affect greasy spoons and other non-glamourous eateries, and hence hit many middle- and working-class families in the pocketbook. But still, restaurant meals are generally not a necessity, and anyone who wants one arguably has an obligation to pay the full price of legally obtaining the factors that go into producing it.

Second, it’s worth pointing out that, ethically, there is a general and strong presumption in favour of following the law. And if the term “corporate citizenship” means anything at all, it ought to include a citizen-like duty to act in a law-abiding way.

Third, if restaurants stopped hiring illegal immigrants, it would obviously be bad for those illegal immigrants; and it would be good for whomever got those jobs instead. In terms of total numbers, this is very nearly a zero-sum game, except for the possibility that fewer people over all would be hired at the higher, legal wage. But illegals are arguably in greater need of the jobs (since fewer kinds of jobs are even possible for them, and because they don’t have the same access to the social security safety net that citizens have access to). So, thinking purely in terms of the duty to help people when you can do so, it might even be argued that restaurants have an obligation to hire illegals.

It seems to me this is an interesting case where a company’s citizenship obligations might well conflict with its more general ethical obligations. And so it’s a nice illustration of why it’s wrong-headed to use the term “corporate citizenship” to cover the various kinds of moral responsibilities that a company may have.

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