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Undocumented day laborers vulnerable to employer abuse

In a previous post we discussed the issue of exploitation of undocumented workers. In that post, we noted that while 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 to all workers, even undocumented ones.

According to one expert in the field, approximately 90 percent of employers treat workers fairly. But a recent survey by Seton Hall University School of Law in Newark, NJ highlighted the fact that undocumented day laborers are vulnerable to a variety of employer abuses, including wage theft, lack of or improper safety gear, and assault. Their vulnerability is often arises from the fact that they tend to be ignorant about their right as workers, fearful of coming into contact with authorities, and struggle with the English language.

There are advocacy groups that fight to safeguard the rights of undocumented workers, but claims of employer abuse can be time-consuming and difficult to win, particularly because day workers very often don't know the names of other information of the contractors and business owners.

The most common complaint these groups see is that an employer will pay some wages and promise to pay the rest later. This leads workers to continue working while unpaid wages accumulate.

The consequences of going without pay can range from going without food or defaulting on rent payments to family tensions back home after family members begin to suspect that their loved one is making money and not sending any back home.

Employers typically require workers to prove they are eligible to work in the United States. The New Jersey Landscape Contractors Association doesn't support hiring day laborers, and encourages all contractors to require workers to show documentation hiring.

There are several options for day laborers who have been cheated out of wages, but most of them have limitations. Advocates often take wage cases to small claims court, but even if a worker wins the case, there is no guarantee that they'll recover any money, since they can't file a lien unless they have basic financial information about their employer.

The more effective approach is often to publicly harass employers by putting media attention on worker abuses, informing homeowners about contractors who refuse to pay employees, and staging protests. Another important way advocates fight for undocumented workers is to educate them on their rights as employees.

Source: Ashbury Park Press, "Dark side of labor: Wage theft common among undocumented day laborers," Kim Predham Lueddeke, 13 Feb 2011.

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