Study: Day Laborers Face Exploitation, Wage Theft

But is there the political will to care about the basic rights of low-wage immigrant workers?

By Julianne Hing Jan 12, 2011

In the wild debates about immigrants and their rights in the country, something often gets lost: many immigrants endure unforgiving and hard work, and also exploitation by employers. Because of their status, many undocumented immigrants in particular are especially vulnerable to such abuses.

That was confirmed by a Seton Hall University Law School report out this week that found that day laborers commonly faced a range of abuses, from unsafe work sites to lower pay than they were promised, and sometimes no pay at all. More than a quarter of the workers polled said they had been assaulted by an employer, too. Researchers polled over 100 day laborers in New Jersey who said their plight was compounded by the fact that many feared reporting abuses because of their immigration status.

The findings are outrageous: 54 percent said they didn’t receive all the wages promised for the work they did; 48 percent had not been paid for a job anything in the past; and 94 percent said they never got overtime. All of these offenses are violations of New Jersey state and federal laws.

"These workers are being robbed, injured and beaten with impunity because of weak, underenforced and antiquated labor laws," Bryan Lonegan, a professor at Seton Hall University School of Law, told the New York Times. "What we really need now is to muster the political will to address this."

But is there the political will to care about the basic rights of low-wage immigrant workers? Doing so would require compassion that seems to be in short supply these days, especially where immigrants are concerned.

Current policy debates regarding day laborers don’t offer much in the way of relief. Arizona’s SB 1070 which, among many other things, made it a state crime to be an undocumented immigrant in the state, also prohibited day laborers from blocking traffic. They were masked as traffic safety laws but clearly target immigrant workers. Another provision which made it illegal for undocumented workers to seek work was enjoined by a judge last year. Last week a coalition of immigrant and civil rights groups asked a federal court to block those remaining provisions. Already the law, coupled with Arizona’s struggling economy, have had a severe impact on Arizona’s day laborers.