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What if someone offered to pay you to let yourself be robbed and assaulted on a regular basis? How much money would it take? How about less than minimum wage, and sometimes nothing at all?
If that sounds surreal, it’s the reality that some workers face every day. A new study by researchers at Seton Hall Law School on day laborers in New Jersey displays the vast gulf between the enforcement of immigration law and the weakness of labor protections. The survey, focusing on more than 100 workers at “pick-up sites” in several New Jersey communities, is a snapshot of the Obama administration’s warped priorities in dealing with labor abuses.
According to the study, half of the surveyed workers were shorted on wages at least once over the past year, or paid nothing. The vast majority were illegally deprived of overtime pay. but most depressing of all, the workers were routinely subjected to unsafe conditions and outright abuse.
On top of the threat of wage theft, laborers reported danger on the job. About a quarter said they had lost days of work due to injury, and about the same number recalled at least one instance of being assaulted by an employer – like when one landscaping worker got punched just for asking his boss for wages.
The underlying reason such abuses occur is simply that they can. Under anemic regulatory oversight, employers escape government scrutiny, while the draconian immigration enforcement regime pressures undocumented immigrants to put up with abuse to avoid trouble. Language barriers, lack of awareness of workplace rights, and a labor market addicted to cheap labor all foster the culture of impunity in the underground workforce.
The research reveals that only a tiny percentage of the more than 100 workers interviewed took legal action against unscrupulous bosses. The report recommends strengthening New Jersey’s wage protections so that workers are actually willing to hold employers accountable for violations. The study found that the state’s wage theft statute generally exists mostly on paper, with “only seven complaints brought under the statute in the entire state last year.”
Day laborers are also extremely vulnerable to mistreatment at the hands of law enforcement, often penalized just for soliciting work, through police intimidation, fines and arbitrary arrest. New Jersey became a legal battleground in 2004 when day laborers, backed by civil rights groups and National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON), challenged local authorities in Freehold over police harassments and won an agreement allowing them to seek work in public spaces.
Similar struggles are unfolding around the country. On Long Island, day laborers teamed up with the New York Civil Liberties Union last May to bring a First Amendment challenge against an ordinance that would bar workers from seeking work on public sidewalks.
Day laborers in Costa Mesa mobilized against an “anti-solicitation ordinance” that civil liberties groups denounced as unconstitutional. A local news outlet described the racial bias embedded in the policy:
Police records and interviews by the OC Voice reveal that besides the questionable constitutionality of the ordinance, the city has enforced the ordinance unequally, applying it almost exclusively to day laborers while ignoring violations by numerous other workers who twirl signs and make other motions on city sidewalks in order to attract customers to local businesses.
Recognizing that workers fear police perhaps as much as they fear exploitative bosses, the Seton Hall study suggests, ‘To help facilitate better access to justice, municipalities should encourage and allow workers in their communities who have been victims of wage theft to file citizen complaints directly with the municipal courts rather than through the police.”
New York recently took a surprisingly progressive stance by ramping up penalties on employers who cheat their workers.The law, to take effect this spring, was hailed by immigrant advocates as a major weapon against the exploitation of undocumented workers, in part because it also helps protect workers from retaliation for speaking out.
The day laborer study reveals just one way the country builds wealth on the backs of powerless workers – backs that will eventually start to break, with repercussions for the whole workforce. Maybe you can’t imagine having to put up with the mistreatment day laborers experience daily. But every day, you put up with a labor system that feeds on their desperation.
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Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the “Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.