Karel has been back in the Czech Republic for several years now, but when agents swept up illegal workers at 60 Wal-Marts across the U.S. last month, the news brought him straight back to Dothan, Alabama. That's where Karel, now 28, spent 15 months as an illegal worker cleaning one of the chain's outlets: working 10 to 12 hours a day, seven days a week, for $5 per hour, constantly fearing deportation and being robbed of two months' wages by two Czechs who arranged the work and handled all payments. "It was do your work and shut up," he says. "There was no way to seek redress, particularly if you didn't speak the language."
Despite the crackdown, which netted around 250 janitors, the flow of illegal workers continues. Local newspapers in Central and Eastern Europe continue to carry ads for menial jobs at U.S. supermarkets, hotels and golf courses; on the Web, dozens of agencies specialize in bringing cheap labor to the U.S. "The impact on business has been nil," says a representative of travelog.cz, a Czech agency currently seeking to fill 27 janitorial positions at Target, Wal-Mart and a shopping mall in Georgia. "Interest is growing as the fall sets in and the weather turns worse," he adds.
Low pay, long hours, no benefits, poor living conditions none of it is enough to deter the region's broke and unemployed. Karel's $1,450 a month was seven times what he'd been making in the Czech Republic. It wasn't easy he slept in the woods next to the Wal-Mart parking lot while looking for a place to live, and departing roommates took his car and valuables worth more than $2,000. His crew was also fined $500 when a shopper fell on a freshly cleaned floor.
But it was worth it, Karel says. With the money he earned, he bought a modest house in the Czech Republic, where he is currently seeking work as a locksmith. "It was a kind of slavery," he says. "But it was a great way to make and save money. I'd do it again."