Poor lawmaking allows exploitation of workers

May 1, 2014 

More than 100 years ago, America celebrated its first May Day, when hundreds of thousands of workers walked off their jobs and demanded better wages and working conditions.

Despite this page in our nation’s history, every day in this country workers continue to be robbed in broad daylight, but the offenders go unpunished. Too often when immigrant workers seek their wages, they are threatened by their employer. The threat is simple but devastating: If you keep asking for your pay, I will report you to immigration authorities.

These threats silence workers and allow bad employers to pocket workers’ wages. For some employers, these threats turn into action, with employers using immigration agents to deport workers rather than pay them.

Lax enforcement of labor laws and a broken immigration system mean that our nation’s worst employers get to lower their labor costs by threatening workers who demand their pay. In turn, they get a competitive advantage over good employers.

While this is a boon for bad employers, workers suffer. The economic stability of their families is shaken. Worse, deportations that come out of these situations rip families apart. Some anti-immigrant advocates take issue with unauthorized workers, believing that their lack of work authorization means they do not have basic workplace rights. But when you allow some workers to be taken advantage of, this tends to lower working conditions across the board, for citizens and noncitizens alike. Congress and President Obama ought to rectify the problem of exploiting unauthorized workers.

First, Republicans in the House of Representatives can do what the American people have called upon them to do and pass an immigration reform bill that prevents bad-apple employers from exploiting a broken immigration system. Last year, the Senate passed immigration reform legislation that had robust protections for workers, as does a bill introduced in the House of Representatives.

In addition, the president has full legal authority to take important steps to ensure that workers who face severe abuse on the job do not face immigration penalties simply for speaking out against these employers. The president and the Department of Homeland Security can do this by ensuring that Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers do not deport immigrants who have come to their attention simply because they have spoken out against abusive employers. The president can — and should — go a step further by providing all workers with freedom from fear of deportation.

Last, states could follow California’s lead and pass bills that address the issue head-on. The California Legislature has enacted a package of bills that help protect workers against retaliation on the job and punish employers who engage in this form of retaliation.

On this May Day, now is the time for legislators and the president to step up and take action.

Emily Tulli is the workers’ rights policy attorney at the National Immigration Law Center. She wrote this for Progressive Media Project, a source of liberal commentary on domestic and international issues.

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