Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013 | 2 a.m.
The current immigration system is manipulated to deny rights afforded under federal labor law to immigrants who are not legally eligible to work but are employed nevertheless, an advocacy organization says.
The National Employment Law Project, a national advocacy organization that focuses on employment rights of low-income workers, released a report Tuesday detailing ways in which employers take advantage of workers lacking legal status.
Authors of the report, “Worker’s Rights on ICE: How Immigration Reform Can Stop Retaliation and Advance Labor Rights,” argue that employers frequently overlook a job applicant’s lack of legal status to secure low-cost labor, only to use their status against the workers when the situation turns sour for the employer.
The report details 22 cases from around the country the authors say are representative of the abuses immigrant workers face. The cases follow a pattern in which the employer will contact immigration authorities only after the employee takes action that affects their bottom line. Many of the cases cited in the report involve workers who either were part of unionization efforts or who filed for unpaid wages or workers compensation before their employers fired them or alerted immigration authorities to their status.
“Many of the tools meant to stop employers from hiring undocumented workers are instead being used by unscrupulous employers to retaliate against workers,” said Rebecca Smith, co-author of the report. “Retaliation is used as an exit strategy for all manner of labor claims, from sexual assault to wage disputes and other unfair labor practices.”
Smith is coordinator of the Immigrant Worker Justice Project at the National Employment Law Project. Eunice Cho, the report’s other co-author, is a fellow at the National Employment Law Project and specializes in immigrant labor and workplace standards.
Even though immigrants, legally here or not, are covered under federal labor law, employers retaliate against them by contacting immigration authorities to intimidate the employee and prevent them from pursuing a legal case, Smith said.
“The worker loses twice,” Smith said. “He never receives his pay and winds up in deportation proceedings even if they are cleared of criminal charges.”
Omar Ortega, one of the case studies the National Employment Law Project offered, said he spent nine years working as a welder for a Milwaukee, Wis., company. He said he was injured on the job, but his workers' compensation claim was denied.
“When I appealed my claim, the insurance company that was contracted by my employer called the police and contacted ICE. They asked for an investigation of my Social Security number. … They arrested me and I was in jail for five months,” Ortega said.
Ortega said it was the insurance company’s policy to report immigrant workers it suspected of using false documents to obtain jobs to avoid paying compensation claims.
While the report’s authors argue legalizing the status of immigrant workers would push up the wages and improve working conditions for everyone, groups opposed to immigration reform containing a pathway to citizenship, such as the Center for Immigration Studies, argue current reform proposals will only increase competition for jobs among unskilled workers here legally.
“'Comprehensive’ immigration reform, as envisioned in the two similar plans, consists essentially of two components: an amnesty for up to 11 million illegal aliens and enhanced guest worker provisions that would allow employers to import cheaper workers from outside the U.S., regardless of the impact on the domestic work force,” Peter Nunez, the chairman of the board of directors for the Center for Immigration Studies, wrote in a San Diego Union-Tribune op-ed.
While the report did not specifically mention any cases from Nevada, immigrants in the state who are not legal residents have run into similar problems.
In September 2012, the Nevada Labor Commission ruled Northstar Electric failed to pay 17 of its employees the prevailing wage on a contract with Clark County for work on a fire station in March 2010. In total, the Nevada Labor Commission found Northstar owed the 17 employees $171,250. Northstar was cited and is banned from receiving a public contract until September 2015, but it is still licensed and can take private jobs.
James Halsey, assistant business manager for International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 357, said a few of the workers who were not paid the mandated wage were immigrants living in the country illegally.
“This case was a perfect example of a contractor taking advantage of workers who are illegal, then when they speak up, he uses their status against them,” Halsey said.
Halsey said the situation created problems for contractors, as well. Companies that only hire applicants who they know are eligible to work and who pay wages required by law are at a disadvantage against unscrupulous employers.
Even immigrant workers in the country legally find themselves the victims of exploitation. Mexican agricultural workers who were in Northern Nevada on guest worker visas filed a class-action suit against Peri & Sons Farms for wage violations in 2009. The suit resulted in the onion farmers paying $2.3 million in back wages to the guest workers.
The report’s authors argue immigration reform must take into account labor issues and should include provisions that protect immigrants from unfair dismissal if their status is legalized.
As lawmakers reach out to their constituents for input on immigration reform, the issue of labor rights has been broached.
On Feb. 21, Rep. Dina Titus, D-Las Vegas, conducted a roundtable discussion on immigration with various community members, including attorneys, union representatives and immigrant advocates.
“How do we address the fact that businesses will hire people who don’t have papers and then they are abused?” Titus asked, naming just one of several issues Congress was grappling with on immigration reform. “They are paid less. They are paid under the table. They don’t get any benefits, and that brings down (the wages for others).”