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Spotlight on Mexican New Yorkers Reveals Ugly Truth of Low-Wage Labor

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Last 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 and finds a group of immigrants facing 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, while being paid only $4 an hour--more than $3 below minimum wage. Employers readily take advantage of these tenants and other immigrant workers because many are undocumented, and as such are cheaper and more compliant in the face of blatant labor violations. In an economic downturn, employers will be even more likely to extract the most out of immigrant workers who must continue to do the hardest jobs for less.

But immigrants are not the only workers who suffer workplace violations in New York. A detailed survey led by the National Employment Law Project found pervasive employment and labor violations perpetrated against many kinds of employees across the city's low-wage labor market. However, undocumented immigrants remain the sole group whose right to basic workplace protections is constantly questioned and routinely ignored.

The negative effects of degraded working conditions go beyond undocumented workers. Wage theft, for example, threatens more than just the workers being cheated out of their already low wages. The NELP study explains:

Low-income families spend the large majority of their earnings 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.

The exploitation of undocumented workers also results in their U.S.-born peers being forced to accept the same diminished wages and working conditions, or be shut out of jobs where employers hire mostly undocumented immigrants. So it's in the shared interest of many low-wage workers that we support immigrants' workplace rights, and take action to reduce their vulnerability to these practices.

For some, the solution to this problem is clear: the government should simply enforce our immigration laws. Yet the Obama Administration is already on track to deport about 400,000 people this year, almost 10 percent more than were deported in 2008 and 25 percent above 2007 totals. Since July, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has also started investigating over 2,000 businesses accused of hiring undocumented immigrants. Workers would benefit from an equally aggressive approach to employment and labor law enforcement.

To crackdown on the abuses of unscrupulous employers, the New York State Legislature recently passed 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 low-wage workers who are struggling to make it in the city, including the newest arrivals, get their fair share in the workplace.