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Working In These Times

Wednesday, May 18, 2011, 10:11 am

Immigrant Workers’ Exploitation Highlights Perils of Job Placement Agencies

BY Akito Yoshikane

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As the nation's unemployment rate remains at record levels, it's no surprise that employment agencies have become a popular destination for those in search of work. Immigrants, especially new arrivals, have increasingly turned to these places with the hope of building a better life.

But recent reports across the country shows a troubled industry, one that routinely takes advantage of workers despite government efforts to enforce labor regulations. Many immigrants are often bilked out of money through bogus placement fees. Those who are placed into jobs – if at all - find themselves in deplorable working conditions, adding to the prevalence of low-wage jobs.

Job-seekers typically pay a fee to an agency in order to find employment and utilize other services such as resume writing. Employment agencies vary from providing staffing services for executives and white-collar workers, but immigrant-oriented offices are typically centered in low-income neighborhoods, often catering to those with limited English skills. Others draw in workers from abroad, charging high fees that leave many new immigrants in severe debt in settings that were far from what was originally promised.

The two accounts were recently profiled in separate stories by the New York Times, each providing immigrant accounts of exploitation.

In Houston, 50 welders from Vietnam arrived in the United States only to find themselves in what they called “indentured servitude.” After the welders were originally recruited by an agency sanctioned by the Vietnam government, they took out loans to pay for the $10,000 agency fee to be placed into an American company.

When they arrived in the U.S., the workers were overcharged for rent on substandard apartments, contained by the company at their homes with threats of deportation, and were laid off at least a year before their contract expired, leaving many unable to pay off their debts. The workers settled a lawsuit out of court with the two American companies, but have yet to see a penny of the $60 million in damages.

In New York, these types of agencies have grown since the recession. The official tally is 350, but labor advocates say that there more than 1,000, according to the New York Times. Agencies are not allowed to provide job guarantees to workers, or refer jobs that pay below minimum wage, according to the city’s labor law.

But agencies have been doing otherwise. The Times reports:

Consumers frequently complain that agencies require non-English speakers to sign contracts in English, or demand upfront payments, which in most cases are illegal. City officials say they have encountered agencies that plotted with businesses to dupe consumers and steal their money, and cases of women being sent for work to strip clubs, rather than to restaurants as they thought.

Others find that the working conditions are too harsh, filled with 12 to 15 hour days at places like restaurants that sometimes do not even pay. As reported last year in the Spanish-language newspaper El Diario, many workers find themselves in an endless cycle, returning to the job placement agency after an unsatisfactory job, only to pay more fees to find employment elsewhere.

New York City cracked down several years ago and has recovered more than $300,000 from job agencies. But it has been difficult enforce the rules. Many of the immigrants are unaware of the legal rights, and coupled with language barriers, find it difficult to report wrong-doing to the authorities.

Some measures are being considered to curb the exploitation of transnational labor and the most vulnerable folks in immigrant communities. Increasing fines and making employee rights more visible at agencies are some ideas being circulated. But many of these agencies have proven too elusive, with some taking fees and disappearing. As a result, the nature of the industry makes it difficult to enforce.

But another key idea is that of consent. Many of these workers have been misled on potential job prospects and placed into work that wasn't originally promised. Giving employees more rights to freely choose instead of unilateral placement by the agency would provide more flexibility in determining one's own livelihood.

Akito Yoshikane is a freelance writer based in Chicago.

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