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Wage theft hits immigrants - hard

Audelia Molina, a Mexican immigrant, was earning 10 cents for every garment she trimmed at a factory in Los Angeles, America’s clothing-assembly capital. Her wage was so meager that she started putting in 11-hour days to drive up production. When she asked for a raise, a supervisor denied her request, so she quit in July 2017 — and turned to a labor-rights attorney to help her file an unpaid-wage complaint with the California Labor Commissioner.

A year later, the state found that Molina was paid, on average, $199 a week, violating overtime law and rules that piece-rate workers earn at least the state’s then $10.50 hourly minimum wage. But Molina’s employer didn’t pay her the almost $23,000 owed, not including attorney fees. Her best option was to apply to a state fund for cheated garment workers, a rare backstop California finances with business registration fees.

It took two more years before Molina received her check. Her former employer still hasn’t reimbursed the state fund, as required.

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A 30-year resident of California, Molina got caught in a toxic cycle centuries old: Immigrants perform some of America’s lowest-paying, arduous jobs, and are among those most victimized by employers failing to pay them fairly. Even if they have support to file a lawsuit or a claim — with a state labor agency, as Molina did, or the U.S. Department of Labor — they often settle for less to get money faster or must wait as cases drag on.

“They pay whatever they want to pay,” said Molina, now 58, referring generally to the worst of garment factory employers she’s had over the years. “What interests them,” she said, “is that the work gets done, and fast.”

Just like U.S. citizens, any non-citizen whose job is covered under the Fair Labor Standards Act has the right to be paid overtime after 40 hours and the minimum hourly wage. But it’s not unusual for immigrant workers, documented or not, to face employer intimidation — which is illegal — when they assert their rights.

The U.S. Department of Labor, which operates in all states, doesn’t ask victims of suspected wage theft if they’re immigrants. The agency plainly acknowledges that complaints are reviewed regardless of workers’ immigration status.

But a Center for Public Integrity analysis of Labor Department and U.S. Census Bureau data found that industries with higher percentages of foreign-born workers had higher rates of wage theft.

Nationally, 16% of U.S. workers are foreign-born. By contrast, 42% of all workers performing cut-and-sew garment assembly are immigrants. That’s one of the highest percentages of immigrant workers in the nation. Public Integrity’s analysis also found that the cut-and-sew garment industry had the second highest rate of federal wage-violation cases over the last 15 years.

Other industries with significant numbers of immigrant workers and wage-theft problems include agriculture, building maintenance, hotel work, restaurant and other food services. In certain regions, immigrants and wage problems are also concentrated in construction, nursing homes, warehouses and car washes.

The AFL-CIO, the largest U.S. labor organization, has long argued that a path to legal status for millions of undocumented workers is crucial to reducing wage theft that harms all workers. After years of deadlock, Democrats who control Congress are struggling to advance proposals for a path for some of the undocumented, most of whom have been here for years and are deeply rooted in families and local economies.

“Immigration is integral to the nation’s economic growth,” a seminal 2016 National Academy of Sciences report found, examining research on documented and undocumented workers. “If the American economy grows and requires more workers both to replace those who retire and to create new firms and industries, the primary source of labor will be first and second-generation immigrants.”

In Los Angeles, nobody disputes that undocumented workers are among the 45,000 Latino and Asian immigrants who sew clothing that ends up in many high-end chains and other retail stores. When the pandemic hit last year, some garment workers began sewing face masks and other crucial protective gear. Some 300 workers contracted the coronavirus themselves at one factory, Los Angeles Apparel, and six died.

“The pandemic highlighted the issue of the high level of immigrant workers, especially undocumented workers who were essential workers,” said Victor Narro, project director of the University of California, Los Angeles Labor Center. “What are we going to do for them now?”

Narro supports a path to legal status — and a bill that California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Sept. 27 that will bar piece-rate pay for garment workers unless it’s additional to an hourly wage and part of a collective-bargaining contract. Staff at L.A.’s nonprofit Garment Worker Center, where Molina learned about her labor rights, lobbied for years for the bill. Center staff say that wage claims they’ve helped file showed an average pay of about $5 an hour — nowhere near legal thresholds. The law, in effect as of 2022, also extends broad wage-theft liability to retailers that contract with factories.

Narro hopes for more reforms to speed collection of unpaid wages.

“Justice needs to happen more on the front end,” he said, “and then all the way on the back end.”

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A CENTURY OF IMMIGRANT EXPLOITATION

The struggle for fair pay in California echoes a time in the early 20th century, when immigrant garment workers from Europe fought for protections eventually enshrined in the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act.

Immigrants toiled in dangerous conditions that led to New York City’s 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire. Flames engulfed a building and 146 people died, 125 of them immigrant women and girls. Outraged workers fought for safety and child-labor laws and developed momentum toward a national minimum wage. By the time standards were approved, though, immigration was plummeting, reduced by nativist policies with quotas and exclusions.

By 1970, with nativist policies lifted, legal immigration was again on the upswing. But between 1990 and 2007, the undocumented population tripled. That created an unprecedented pool of nearly 11 million people who are more vulnerable to workplace abuse — and who work in communities coast to coast.

Because of alleged abuse, U.S. labor officials this past August obtained a preliminary injunction barring a Danbury, Connecticut, bakery owner from “retaliating, taking any adverse action, or threatening to take any adverse action” against employees. The Labor Department alleges that the owner of Padaminas NY Bakery told workers that he’d fire them or report them to immigration agents if they spoke with labor officials who were investigating the bakery’s employment practices. Bakery staff hung up when contacted by phone for a comment about the allegations.

Ruben Rosalez, the Department of Labor’s California-based West Coast regional director of wage and hour enforcement, said that while officials don’t inquire about immigration status, their probes often take them to businesses employing “a lot of people of color and large immigrant populations.”

“This is 2021,” Rosalez said. “To have minimum wage, federal minimum wage violations in the garment industry should be unheard of. But it’s not. It’s actually pretty common.”

U.S. labor officials enforce the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. If states or local jurisdictions have higher hourly minimums, state or local officials enforce those. Both enforce federal overtime law requiring time-and-half pay for work over 40 hours in a week.

Los Angeles County’s local minimum hourly wage became $15.00 as of July 1 of this year.

In its quest to deter wage theft, the Garment Worker Center spent years persuading California legislators to end piece-rate pay in factories and extend liability for wage violations to retailers. The California Chamber of Commerce fought back, calling the bill a “job killer” and arguing that fashion companies will flee the state to find cheaper factories abroad and in other states. The chamber also argued that piece-rate pay is a benefit for some workers.

But during former President Barack Obama’s administration, U.S. labor officials investigated L.A. garment factories 77 times in a sweep, finding violations in 85% of factories and $1.3 million in unpaid wages.

Officials also researched the time and cost of producing garments and found that incentives for wage theft began with pricing: On average, the price per garment that manufacturers received from retailers was only 73% of the price needed to support paying workers even minimum required pay. In some cases, retailers paid $4 per garment rather than the $10 needed.

California’s own state labor agency is robust, with staff who review complaints, and also conduct surprise inspections and investigations. Inspectors also work with the Garment Workers Center and other advocates to identify suspect businesses. That’s how state investigators recently discovered an alleged scheme to deprive restaurant workers of overtime pay. Immigrant workers at a series of Baja Fresh franchises in the L.A. area approached the local Restaurant Opportunities Center, an advocacy group. The center helped the mostly Latino workers prepare for an investigation by the state Labor Commissioner’s office.

When workers contemplated complaining, “some people were very afraid,” said former employee Rocio Martinez, 30. She said managers often urged her to put in double shifts, and sometimes would make remarks that made workers feel powerless.

“You’d hear things like, ‘You can’t take a break. You’re illegal,’” she said. “It was said like it was a joke. But it really wasn’t.”
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