Suzanne Fields

Colonial Williamsburg is proud of its tradesmen. You can see the carpenters walking out of the history books and down the cobblestone streets, ready to talk to visitors about how they hammered Williamsburg together, log by log, shingle by shingle, as if still in the 18th century.

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These tradesmen built new homes, smokehouses, dairies, barns. They built additions and repaired old structures. Some were skilled carpenters and bricklayers, others were just learning, but together they raised rafters and roof beams, set door frames, laid floors with timber cut from nearby trees.

The colonial wages were paid to the original Williamsburg tradesmen in Spanish-milled dollars and doubloons (worth about $16). Money was minted in Mexico and called "pillar dollars" because of its image of two pillars flanking two globes reflecting the colonial version of a global economy.

But all that was a long time ago. Today, the picture for laborers who aren't in 18th century costume tells a different story. Many arrive from Mexico without money of any kind. Immigrants from Mexico, Central and South America are often the last hired and the most abused and exploited. Their daily pay is the equivalent to what a "pillar dollar" would be worth today.

In a boom economy, the rich -- like Bernie Madoff -- exploit the rich. Hurt hardest in the current recession are the illegal immigrants, mostly from Mexico, who are sometimes paid with checks that bounce. Their employers figure they won't complain because they're illegal and are afraid of being sent home. With many Americans and workers with green cards joining the ranks of the unemployed, such victims don't garner a lot of sympathy, but the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot uncovered a nest of nasty contractors taking cruel advantage during the recession of those at the bottom of the economic ladder -- penny-ante Bernie Madoffs trading in human labor.

No matter what you think about illegal immigration, a scam is a scam. It lowers the morale of workers and the state of workmanship. "At the end of the day, any human being who works is entitled to pay, regardless whether they're documented or not," says Myra Creed, chairwoman of the Hispanic Advisory Committee in Newport News, Va.


Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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