The Most Vulnerable and the Most Exploited
A report released by Seton Hall University, the first new study since the recession, paints an ever more depressing portrait of the lives of day laborers. 96 percent of the day workers in Ironbound, Newark, have been victims of wage theft—88 percent said that they had not been paid for overtime as required by state and federal laws, 77 percent reported that their employers had paid them less than originally promised, and 62 percent had experienced at least once instance where they were not paid at all. Furthermore, 80 percent had not been provided with safety equipment, 27 percent had been assaulted by their employer, and 20 percent had been injured on the job.
Day laborers are the most economically vulnerable workers, easily exploited and hesitant to seek recourse. Many are undocumented immigrants, willing to resort to the most laborious and low-paying jobs, worried about deportation, unaware of their legal rights, and in effect, impelled to put up with flagrant workplace abuses. Furthermore, with the economic recession, the demand for such workers has fallen and the room for outright exploitation has increased. Though day laborers are endowed with the same legal protections granted to all workers according to New Jersey law, the Ironbound workers have been subject to a larger rate of wage violations than what even national statistics have shown.
At the same time, day laborers are also subject to increasing crackdowns by local communities. In May, a federal judge prohibited the enforcement of an ordinance in Oyster Bay, New York, that banned standing on the road to seek jobs, a law that was defended under the guise of protecting pedestrian safety.
And as Daniel has pointed out, the increasing fervor against immigrants means that day laborers are more vulnerable than ever. When Arizona’s law takes effect later this week, expect such workers to be highly targeted.
Day laborers need to be informed of their rights and proactively protected by the law, and immigrant workers should be given a path to legalization (an option that could potentially be on the table in the AgJobs legislation). The ad hoc “system” that operates now benefits no one—not workers, not businesses that rely on a stable labor supply. We depend on day laborers, especially in terms of agriculture, and we should remember that these workers do the work that most Americans don’t want to do and for wages that most Americans wouldn’t stand for.