National Immigration Forum

Practical Solutions for Immigrants and America

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Reform Immigration…for Workers

September 09, 2009 - Posted by Maurice Belanger

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Labor Day has come and gone, marking the unofficial end of summer and the beginning of the fall Congressional session.  For most of us, Labor Day caps a three-day weekend.  For many of the workers on the bottom rungs of our economic system, Labor Day was just another day to get ripped off by an employer without scruples. 


A new report jointly published by the Center for Urban Economic Development, the National Employment Law Project, and the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment documents the plight of low-wage workers based on a survey of 4,387 workers in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York.  The report paints a picture of a broken worker protection system.  As the New York Times editorialized, the report


found abuses everywhere: in factories, grocery stores, retail shops, construction sites, offices, warehouses and private homes. The word sweatshop clearly is not big enough anymore to capture the extent and severity of the rot in the low-wage workplace.

Workers in America, Cheated,” September 2, 2009


Wages are low, but these workers do not even get the wages due to them.  As The Washington Post noted in their editorial on the study,


Two-thirds of those surveyed had suffered some form of wage violation. Some had been paid significantly less than the prevailing minimum wage; many had worked overtime without being paid at the required overtime rate. Others were simply not paid at all for hours worked outside of their regular shifts. Those who were seriously hurt on the job often were given no recourse….

Down and Out,” September 8, 2009


In part, this state of affairs is enabled by the lack of commitment of the government to enforce the rules in recent years.  As the report notes,


Between 1980 and 2007, the number of inspectors enforcing federal minimum wage and overtime laws declined by 31 percent, even as the labor force grew by 52 percent.  Similarly, the budget of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has been cut by $25 million in real dollar terms between 2001 and 2007….


Currently, penalties for many workplace violations are so modest that they fail to deter many employers. For example, the savings to employers from paying their workers less than the minimum wage often outweigh the costs, even for those few who are apprehended.

Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers


There is another problem that is inextricably linked to the appalling state of worker protections in this country: the broken immigration system.  As the Post editorial notes,


Almost 70 percent of the so-called front-line workers surveyed in the study were foreign born, and more than half of those were undocumented immigrants. Their status invites exploitation from unprincipled employers….

Down and Out,” September 8, 2009


Without immigration reform, with a program to bring undocumented immigrants out of the shadows and into the legal regime of labor laws that are supposed to protect all workers, there will always be opportunity for employers seeking to rip off a vulnerable workforce and undercut an honest competitor.


Workplace abuses are flourishing in the absence of a working immigration system, where illegal immigrants are vital to the economy but helpless to assert their rights.


The report upends the argument that the way to help American workers is to make illegal immigrants ever more frightened and exploitable. Only by protecting all workers will the country begin to rebuild a workplace matching its ideals of decency and fair play.

Workers in America, Cheated,” September 2, 2009


In the coming Congressional session, we will undoubtedly see some members of Congress justify their fantasy of mass deportation as something that we must have to protect American workers.  The real champions of workers, however, will be those who advocate comprehensive immigration reform to get all workers into the system.  This is the only way to ensure that a worker born in the United States will be protected by the labor laws of the land.


Photo by Flickr user Frederick Md Publicity

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