A New York Times exposé last month revealed that nail salon workers, many of them undocumented immigrants, are paid below minimum wage, deprived of back pay and exposed to dangerous chemicals that pose serious health hazards. New York is now taking action against nail salons that exploit their employees.
This issue mirrors a broader pattern nationwide. More than 11 million undocumented immigrants toil in America’s fields, construction sites, salons and fast-food establishments — workers in a shadow economy with little ability to push back when employers disregard civil and human rights, including basic safeguards such as safe conditions and fair pay. Protection for these vulnerable workers is much needed at the state and national levels.
The most cited problem facing unauthorized immigrants is wage theft, an illegal practice in which employers withhold workers’ pay. Every year, 6.5 million undocumented workers experience wage theft. Low-wage workers across the nation lose roughly $50 billion annually.
Those who protest this abuse face employer retaliation, often culminating in deportation. Unlike most American workers, who are legally protected when they blow the whistle on employer wrongdoing, undocumented workers don’t have this right. Because of their legal status, employers can fire undocumented workers and hold hostage any owed wages. They can self-audit their employment records, invite immigration authorities to conduct an audit or simply tip off the authorities to avoid paying up.
Antonio Vanegas, for example, who worked at a Quick Pita at Reagan National Airport in Virginia, complained that he was being paid below minimum wage. His reward? He was detained and faced ongoing threats of deportation.
Low-income immigrants spend most of their earnings on basic necessities. Wage theft pushes these workers even further into the informal economy, causing job anxiety, robbing their households of much-needed income and sapping their neighborhoods of economic vitality.
The Senate’s 2013 immigration bill recognized this injustice. The expansion of U visas created temporary legal status for undocumented workers who filed legitimate complaints about serious workplace abuses, including exploitation and violation of whistleblower protections. The bill allowed undocumented workers to obtain temporary work authorization while a wage-theft investigation was underway. The sections of the bill resembled the Protect Our Workers from Exploitation and Retaliation Act, also introduced last Congress and endorsed by the National Immigration Law Center.
But immigration reform isn’t commanding the political attention that it once did in Washington. Particularly as we enter the next presidential election cycle, many on the Hill are reluctant to take up politically sensitive issues, so states are leading the way to better protect vulnerable workers.
Last year California began enforcing a law to protect its 2 million undocumented workers. Employers will now be fined up to $10,000 per employee for each instance of retaliation, regardless of the person’s immigration status. The law also prohibits employers from contacting immigration authorities in retaliation for worker complaints.
But protecting undocumented workers can’t be left to the states. The Constitution requires the federal government to protect our borders and enact fair visa policies. Moreover, abuse of undocumented workers is particularly acute in states with weak labor laws and booming shadow economies.
Much work remains to be done. The U.S. has created a second-class workforce with no legal recourse against abuse and exploitation. In April a 7-Eleven owner in Long Island was sentenced in one of the largest multistate criminal immigrant wage theft investigations ever conducted. Over a dozen stores exploited more than 50 undocumented workers, who worked 100 hours per week for as little as $3 an hour. Their every movement was monitored, and they were forced to live in employer-owned housing.
Protecting undocumented workers from wage theft and exploitation should be part of our national conversation on income inequality, stagnant wages and economic recovery. In the coming months we’ll see top presidential candidates promise to lead the U.S. toward a more inclusive future. But if Hillary Clinton, Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush want to stay true to their word, they should emphasize worker rights, including immigrant whistleblower protections, to ensure that our economy roots out all forms of exploitation and protects our most vulnerable workers.
Vijay Das is a Washington-based writer and policy advocate. His writing has appeared at CNN.com, Salon and The Guardian, among other outlets.
Arjun Sethi is a writer and lawyer in Washington, D.C.
This article was originally posted on Al Jazeera America.