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Exploitation of undocumented workers: they still have legal rights

A recent article in The Tennessean looked at the issue of employers' failure to pay immigrant workers. The article highlighted the protections available to such workers when their employers exploit them.

According to a 2004 study by the Urban Institute, undocumented workers made up about 5 percent of the U.S. workforce. Although it is illegal for employers to hire undocumented workers, they are bound by the Fair Labor Standards Act to provide minimum wages, overtime pay, and other protections once they do. Further, there is no legal residency requirement to file a complaint in American courts, which means that even illegal workers can file complaints against employers failing to comply with the Fair Labor Standards Act.

The Worker's Dignity Project-a Nashville-based nonprofit-seeks to educate immigrant workers of their rights and assist them in securing those protections.

Many immigrant workers, both legal and illegal, report that some employers neglect to pay them properly for their work and then threaten deportation if they complain. Complaints filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee showed a variety of claims, from accusations of failure to pay overtime wages to painters, to exploiting Mexican migrant workers through federal guest worker programs.

According to a Nashville attorney who represents such workers, employers sometimes threaten to call police or immigration authorities and then continue to work immigrants without paying them. Because of the situation of such workers, it is easy for employers to fail to pay full wages and come up with excuses.

Some advocates say the problem is more widespread than is readily visible, since many undocumented workers do not come forward.

According to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman, the primary focus of the agency is not to find and deport illegal workers, but to prevent employers from knowingly hiring, exploiting and trafficking illegal workers.

Programs similar to the Workers' Dignity Project exist in other cities, such as Austin, Texas and Long Island, New York.

Advocates for immigrant workers say that such exploitation is not only contrary to basic human rights, but that it also depresses wages, benefits and working conditions for all workers.

Source: The Tennessean, "Immigrants turn to courts when wages aren't paid: legal, illegal workers are protected from threats, exploitation," Brandon Gee, 25 Jan 2011.

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