Immigrant workers are often exploited in the workplace. Workers are paid less than minimum wage, work in substandard conditions, and sometimes are paid nothing at all. Undocumented workers particularly are at risk of mistreatment because reporting the incidents may subject them to scrutiny regarding their legal status. Even here in Tucson, Arizona, immigrant workers have reported exploitation in the workplace.
A recent report has opened discussion on the working conditions of immigrant here in Tucson. Co-authored by the Bacon Immigration Law and Policy Program and the Southwest Institute for Research on Women, the report found that of the 90 women who took the survey, the majority were subject to abuse or exploitation by their employer. Although over half of the women had work authorization, they still reported mistreatment.
The report titled, “Out of the Shadows: Shedding light on the working conditions of immigrant women in Tucson,” offers an unfortunate look at the way employers are treating workers. Many reported getting paid under minimum wage, and later not getting paid at all. One woman filed a report with the Immigrant Worker's project, which finally resulted in the employer paying for the work.
Immigrant rights advocates encourage workers to report any mistreatment. The Derechos Humanos Immigrant Worker's Project at the University of Arizona handles such claims. These claims of underpayment and mistreatment are all to common. Some employers actively intimidate undocumented workers. Employers may threaten to tell authorities that the worker is illegally in the country.
The report included policy changes and recommendations to protect workers. These include a domestic worker's bill of rights, funding for immigrant worker's groups, and laws to protect workers from retaliation by their employers if they report mistreatment.
Mayor Jonathan Rothschild said he is open to discussions increasing the minimum wage, and possibly creating a domestic workers registry, changes should really begin with worker education. The lack of information is a real issue, as is coming forward to report problems for fear of being fired.
Of course, this is not a local problem, but one experienced by immigrants across the country. A center in Dallas, Texas offering free legal services to low-wage workers is expanding. The Equal Justice Center (EJC) provides assistance for workers who have been taken advantage of, and has recovered more than $7 million in damages and unpaid wages over the past 11 years.
When an employer does not pay a worker the promised wages, pays less than minimum wage, or does not pay overtime, this is a violation of state and federal employment law. Employers who commit wage theft can even face criminal charges with prison time.
Michael Cowles, an attorney with EJC in Dallas, said wage theft is rampant in Texas. One in five construction workers has experienced some form of wage theft. The majority of their cases come from construction, restaurant and janitorial workers. “We've really just begun to scratch the surface,” Cowles said. “The problem is going to get worse before it gets better.”
The full University of Arizona report can be found here, in both Spanish and English.