Getting labor laws to work

By Michelle Chen Mar 25, 2009

A worker trying to challenge a deadbeat boss may be better off leaving the authorities out of it. According to the Government Accountability Office, the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division has not proven very labor friendly in enforcing worker protections. Drawing from “test” cases as well as actual complaints, the report released today reveals:

GAO found cases where it took over a year for [the Wage and Hour Division (WHD)] to respond to a complaint, cases closed based on unverified information provided by the employer, and cases dropped when the employer did not return phone calls. GAO’s overall assessment of the WHD complaint intake, conciliation, and investigation processes found an ineffective system that discourages wage theft complaints.

The flipside of discouraging wage theft complaints, of course, is encouraging wage theft violations. Yet it’s no secret that weak federal regulation leaves many of the country’s poorest, most marginalized workers at the mercy of abusive employers. With the economy sinking, workers may be particularly fearful about asserting their rights without some assurance that the law is on their side—and immigrants are especially at risk. Immigrant workers are burdened not only by a general lack of enforcement and oversight, but also fear of immigration authorities, language barriers, and limited knowledge of their rights. Although immigration status should not preclude basic rights to minimum wage, overtime pay and safe working conditions, the Center for American Progress reported last September:

The risk of employer abuse is especially high for Latino workers. Every year nearly 6,000 American workers are killed on the job, but Latino workers face the highest risk of fatal workplace injuries. In 2006, when the death toll of Latino workers on the job reached an all-time high of 990, the fatality rate was 25 percent higher among Latino workers than white workers…. As the largest portion (50 percent) of the foreign-born workforce, Latino workers are frequent victims of employer wage theft, and often work in industries where wage theft is rampant. All totaled, victims of wage theft are bilked out of an estimated $19 billion in wages every year.

One of the most glaring examples of twisted federal priorities on immigrant labor is the Agriprocessors raid in Postville, Iowa. Federal agents rounded up hundreds of undocumented workers with remarkable efficiency, but Iowa’s government has done the heavy lifting on dealing with the company’s widespread alleged labor abuses, which include unsafe conditions, the use of child workers, and stealing wages. CAP has urged the Obama administration to ramp up enforcement funding, use penalties to deter violations, and create strategies to actively target unscrupulous employers. More importantly, the Labor Department could clamp down on the worst abuses and raise the floor for the entire workforce by placing immigrants on the same tier as other workers. While economic anxieties have made labor and union issues as critical as ever under the new administration, they also threaten to breed more nativist antagonism. Strong enforcement of labor laws by federal, state and local agencies could help elucidate the concept of immigrants’ rights as workers’ rights. Image: Leather workers at a Chicago factory, c. 1880 (Chicago History Museum)