Sweatshop Conditions in the US: The Problem of Wage Theft

Photo credit: torbakhopper on Flickr

Photo credit: torbakhopper on Flickr

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) provides “standards for the basic minimum wage and overtime pay, affects most private and public employment. It requires employers to pay covered employees who are not otherwise exempt at least the federal minimum wage and overtime pay of one-and-one-half-times the regular rate of pay,” according to the United States Department of Labor. Laws such as the FLSA are meant to cover every worker, regardless of immigration status. Despite the fact that this law has been in effect since 2009, studies and research of low-wage workers all over the US, in particular immigrants, reveal the high prevalence of wage theft—the failure to pay workers the wages that are owed to them.

As covered in last month’s issue of The Green American, “Fair Labor at Home,” about 23.1 million immigrants work in the US, and only eight million are undocumented. Another 240,000 come here legally as temporary workers. Many of the most exploited workers on American soil come from this immigrant population, both those who are undocumented and those who are legal residents or recent citizens. Thus, because many recent immigrants are unfamiliar with US labor laws or are still learning English, they are easily taken advantage of, making them frequent victims of wage theft, dangerous conditions, and uncompensated workplace injuries, discrimination and physical assaults.

A study for the National Employment Law Project, the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment and the Center on Urban Economic Development found that foreign-born workers were nearly twice as likely as their U.S.-born counterparts to have a minimum wage violation, and of the overseas-born, Latino workers had the highest minimum wage violation rates of any ethnic group.

In 2009, NPR reported that an employee at a family-friendly chicken place in New York City earned $25 for an eight-hour shift—this is less than half of New York’s minimum wage for waiters. He also worked several 12-hour days yet received no overtime. Another employee claimed that he was paid in cash and worked more than 80 hours a week.

Undocumented immigrants are in a particular bind, because employers can threaten to expose their immigration status if they complain about wage theft or other abuses. Last month, the Huffington Post reported that an undocumented worker working at Quick Pita at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in D.C. publicly claimed that his boss had been violating the labor law.  The Guatemala native shared that he was paid under the table, earned $6.50 per hour his first year and $7 his second year—both of which are below D.C.’s minimum wage rate of $8.25—all while working more than 40 hours per week without the overtime pay he should have received by law. Shortly after, he was turned over to immigration officials and spent four days in detention, and now is waiting for his immigration hearing this month, after which he may be deported.

To halt the egregious abuse of vulnerable immigrant workers in the US, the federal government needs to adopt whistleblower protection laws. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) had proposed an amendment to the Senate immigration bill that would have provided such protection. Unfortunately, the amendment was taken out of the final version of the bill, which was passed in June. The bill has now moved to the House.

In the meantime, citizens are banding together to help protect exploited workers. In an effort to combat these violations, “the Labor Department has joined forces with immigrant advocacy groups for what they call “wage watch”—an approach taken straight from the concept of Neighborhood Watches,” according to NPR. These groups, comprised of ordinary people, will undergo training and will be given materials by the Labor Department’s Division of Labor Standards. Groups will then select a specific geographic zone and organize activities to improve labor law compliance in those areas. For example, they will conduct know-your-rights training, provide employers with information about compliance, and distribute informative literature to workers in different industries.  Furthermore, when these groups come across workers who have been violated, they will refer them to a specific person in the Labor Department’s Division of Labor Standards, who will then enforce wage and hour laws.

“Thousands of workers every year are victims of wage and hour violations, and this initiative is a great tool to help enforce the labor laws that most of the time are not known by the workers nor by their employers. Immigrant workers are the most exploited and most vulnerable and we look forward to collaborating in this endeavor,” says Gonzalo Mercado, director of the nonprofit El Centro del Inmigrante.

How can you help to prevent wage theft in immigrant workers? Know the minimum wage laws in your state: http://www.dol.gov/whd/minwage/america.htm; note that where the Federal and state laws have different minimum wage rates, the higher standard applies. Even though New York’s Wage Watch is just a few months old, send an email to NewYorkWageWatch@labor.state.ny.us or call 1-888-52-LABOR (if you are from NY), to find out what you can do to establish a group in your community. You can also call your Representatives and ask them to add strong worker whistleblower protection to future immigration reform bills.

 – Krisna Bharvani, Green America Editorial Fellow

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