DMI Blog

Amy Traub

Solis Has Got It: Enforcing Workplace Rights for Undocumented Immigrants Protects American Citizens

When U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis unveiled the Labor Department’s new wage and hour enforcement and awareness campaign last week, she emphasized that “the nation's laws are for the protection of everyone who works in this country.” One would hope that wouldn’t be a controversial point. But conservatives and anti-immigrant groups are on the warpath.

In a widely re-posted article, the conservative Examiner frets that “Obama Administration now openly assisting illegal alien workers.” Fox’s Neil Cavuto thinks it’s “bizarre” to try to prevent undocumented immigrants from being exploited, reveals Andrea Nill.

But the Department of Labor’s new campaign against workplace violations is far from an effort to help “illegal aliens” at the expense of citizens. In reality, it’s the best way to protect U.S. citizens both from blatant wage theft and from the more insidious downward pressure on wages, benefits, and working conditions that comes from having a large population of workers who cannot effectively assert their right to the minimum wage, overtime, and other fundamental workplace protections.

As I noted last year in The Nation:

Because undocumented workers are often too afraid of deportation to speak up about workplace abuses, unscrupulous employers can cut immigrants' wages and benefits and degrade working conditions with impunity. Exploiting undocumented workers can drag down wages for other workers, especially those with little education: as their employers are forced to compete with companies that exploit immigrants, entire industries may see wages decline. Indeed, violations of minimum wage, overtime and workplace safety laws are rampant in the nation's immigrant-dominated low-wage industries, according to a recent eye-opening study by researchers at UCLA, the University of Illinois and the National Employment Law Project. Their in-depth investigation in three American cities reveals that as many as one in four low-wage workers--including hundreds of thousands of American citizens in these cities alone--were paid less than the minimum wage in the week prior to the survey. And while undocumented immigrants appear to be the most vulnerable to abuses, this research vividly illustrates the way that exploitation of immigrants goes hand-in-hand with an atmosphere in which citizens are also taken advantage of on the job. As long as such violations persist, economic recovery will never reach these workers.

The Department of Labor’s “We Can Help” campaign is a long overdue attempt to ensure that critical workplace protections once again effectively apply to everybody participating in the U.S. labor market. Leaving immigrants out would play right into the hands of those who profit from exploiting the and drag all of us down in the process.

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Posted at 1:39 PM, Apr 08, 2010 in Immigration | Labor
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