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Spotlight on Mexican New Yorkers Highlights Realities of Low-Wage Work

This week, the New York Times took a peek inside the lives and livelihoods of Mexican immigrants, the city’s fastest-growing group of newcomers. The article focuses on a Brooklyn apartment building mostly occupied by Mexican workers, finding a group of immigrants that face constant and commonplace workplace exploitation. “The tenants…said they had never been paid overtime compensation, were routinely handed the least desirable tasks and were sometimes forced to work on their one free day.” One man reported working 12 hours a day, seven days a week, and being paid $4 an hour, more than $3 less than minimum wage.

Undocumented workers, who are easy targets for greedy employers looking to cut corners on labor laws, consistently work under these conditions. In an economic downturn, employers are even more likely to extract the most out of immigrant workers who, in turn, will continue to do the hardest jobs for less. Certainly immigrant workers are not the only ones who suffer workplace violations in the city. A detailed survey led by the National Employment Law Project found pervasive employment and labor violations perpetrated against many kinds of employees, across New York City’s low-wage labor market. But undocumented immigrants remain the sole group whose right to basic workplace protections is constantly questioned and routinely ignored.

The Times story points out that Mexican immigrants hold jobs at high rates: a staggering 96 percent of working-age Mexicans in the labor force are employed. We should all be concerned that these jobs don’t perpetuate diminished labor standards that hurt all workers. Wage theft, for example, threatens more than just the workers being cheated out of already low wages. The NELP study explains why:

Low-income families spend the large majority of their earning on basic necessities, such as food, clothing and housing. Their expenditures circulate through local economies, supporting businesses and jobs. Wage theft robs local communities of this spending, and ultimately limits economic growth and vitality in [New York’s] neighborhoods.

What is the solution here? Certainly, some will suggest that the only laws our government should be enforcing in this case are immigration laws, and as such, we should just deport undocumented workers. Let’s put this talking point aside and look at a few key facts: the Obama Administration is doing just that, and is already on track to deport nearly 400,000 people this year. And since July, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has started investigations of over 2,000 businesses accused of hiring undocumented immigrants.

To crackdown on the abuses of unscrupulous employers, the New York State Senate and Assembly have both signed the much-needed Wage Theft Prevention Act. Key provisions of the bill raise penalties for employers who keep wages from their workers, while encouraging workers to come forward and assist these investigations. Nationally, U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis has championed a wage and hour campaign reminding us that labor laws protect all workers, regardless of immigration status. These are critical steps taken to sure that all New Yorkers, including the newest arrivals, get their fair share in the workplace.

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Posted at 5:14 PM, Sep 24, 2010 in Immigration
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