Immigration reform needed to stop worker rights violations

A new report by the National Employment Law Project (NELP) finds that some employers use the current immigration law to avoid complying with federal, state, and local labor laws and that this abuse can be ended if reform of the immigration laws includes a clear path toward citizenship for undocumented immigrant workers. Doing so, says the report, would improve wages and working conditions for immigrant and non-immigrant workers alike.

According to the report, entitled Workers Rights on ICE: How Immigration Reform Can Stop Retaliation and Advance Labor Rights, some employers who employ immigrant workers hold down labor costs by using immigration laws to avoid paying minimum wages and overtime and to avoid complying with other fair pay protections.

When immigrant workers try to make these employers follow the law or try to organize a union, they often find themselves facing the threat of deportation.

The abuse of immigration laws to hold down labor costs gives unscrupulous employers an unfair competitive advantage over employers who follow the law and drives down wages and working conditions for all workers especially in low-wage industries where immigrant workers are concentrated.

Changing immigration laws so that they can’t be used to unlawfully lower labor costs will benefit immigrant and non-immigrant workers alike, and the key to doing so is to create a clear path to citizenship for the eight million undocumented immigrant workers in the US.

“By enacting a new immigration policy that includes a broad path to citizenship, equal remedies for all workers subjected to illegal treatment at work, a stronger firewall between immigration and labor law enforcement, and immigration protections for workers actively engaged in defending their labor rights, Congress and the White House can ensure that immigrant workers who stand up for their rights are protected,” said Eunice Cho, and NELP attorney and co-author of the report. “Immigration reform, done right, can ensure improved wages and working conditions for all workers.”

The report includes the results of a survey of more than 4,000 low-paid workers in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. The survey found that labor abuses are endemic in low-wage industries where immigrant workers are most likely to be employed. Two-thirds of those surveyed had experienced some form of pay related violation.

Instances of pay related violations are even higher among undocumented workers:  76.3 percent said that they had worked off the clock without pay; 84.9 percent had been paid less than the law requires for overtime work, and 37.1 percent had been paid less than the minimum wage.

The report gives workers the opportunity to tell their own stories about how immigration laws have been used to help employers circumvent labor laws.

Pablo Gutierrez’s story is representative. Gutierrez worked at a restaurant in Lanett, Alabama from 8:00 A.M. to 10:00 P.M. seven days a week for $3.50 an hour. His employer did not pay him for two months, and when Gutierrez asked for a raise, he was fired on the spot.

He sought his back pay and was told by his employer to come by the restaurant after it closed on October 6, 2012. When he arrived, Gutierrez noticed his boss making a phone call. Within minutes, police were on the scene, arrested him for robbery, and turned him over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Gutierrez was subsequently deported to Mexico.

Employers are also using immigration laws to stop workers from taking collective action to improve wages and working conditions.

When three-quarters of the workers at Palermo’s Pizza in Milwaukee, Wisconsin signed a union representation petition, Palermo’s announced that it would be conducting an audit of the workers immigration status. ICE ruled that the audit was designed to thwart the union drive and told the company that it wouldn’t prosecute those whom the audit identified as undocumented.

Palermo subsequently fired 75 of the workers and cited their immigration status as the reason for the firings.

Referring to the current immigration law, Christine Owens, executive director of NELP said that it has given “unscrupulous employers a potent weapon to deter immigrant workers from asserting their workplace rights.”

“These abuses underscore how important it that reform of our immigration laws ensures full protection of workers’ exercise of their rights,” said Owens.

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