Dolores and Miguel came to Austin from El Salvador to work as cleaners at a construction site. They were promised $100 a day in pay. On payday, their boss refused to pay them. When they took action to get the money they were owed, Miguel was deported. Dolores is afraid to pursue the case because she fears being deported too.
Dolores’ and Miguel’s story is one that appears in a new report by the Workers Defense Project and the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin entitled “Build a Better Nation: A Case for Comprehensive Immigration Reform.”
According to the report, wage theft, unsafe working conditions, low pay, and other worker rights violations are the result of a failed US immigration policy that has left millions of workers vital to local, state, and national economies vulnerable to extreme exploitation. In addition to being unjust, it’s a situation that could have dire consequences for the entire economy.
“We are facing a crisis in Texas,” said Cristina Tzintzún, executive director of Workers Defense Project at a press conference announcing publication of the new report. “If major changes aren’t made to our immigration policy, workers’ rights will continue to erode and businesses in the state won’t be able to operate. Our whole economy could be threatened.”
“We need to have sensible immigration policy, so that businesses can hire the workforce legitimately and we can compete on a level playing field,” said Stan Marek CEO of Marek Brothers Construction.
Companies that take advantage of the undocumented status of their immigrant workers to avoid their legal responsibilities and under pay their workers have an unfair advantage over business competitors that follow the rules.
As long as US immigration policy remains focused primarily on enforcement there is little that can be done to curb these unfair labor practices.
According to “Build a Better Nation,” the problem is widespread. A survey of more than 1,000 immigrant construction workers in Texas cities found that
- 50 percent of the workers surveyed were undocumented immigrants
- 61 percent of the undocumented workers were earning poverty level wages
- 25 percent experienced some form of wage theft
- 29 percent had no workers compensation
- 73 percent received no safety training
- 46 percent didn’t receive breaks during work hours
- 50 percent had to bring their own drinking water and
- 14 percent experienced retaliation for trying to improve working conditions.
In addition, average wages for undocumented workers is more than $3 an hour less than US born workers and only 14 percent of the undocumented workers surveyed were making a living wage of more than $14 an hour.
Real immigration reform would make it easier for undocumented workers to take collective action to fight back against these abuses.
“Build a Better Nation” lays out the principles of a sensible immigration policy. Foremost, it should have provisions that ensure that families will not be split apart by deportation. “This protection will limit an unscrupulous employer’s ability to intimidate a worker exercising his or her workplace rights,” reads the report.
Employment rights of hardworking immigrant employees must also be protected. Workers should be able to demand fair and honest treatment by their employers without fear of deportation.
Businesses that treat immigrant workers fairly should be rewarded by protecting them from unscrupulous employers who gain a competitive advantage by violating the rights of immigrant workers.
Undocumented workers should have a clear path toward citizenship. A clear path to citizenship would be the best way to ensure that employers don’t use the threat of deportation to gain an unfair advantage in the labor market. It would also reward the hard work of the many undocumented workers who have become vital to health and strength of local economies all over the US.