Let's be clear: most workers who experience some form of wage theft are not undocumented: they're citizens or immigrants who have legal papers to work. But anti-immigrant measures like Arizona's SB 1070, and many that were considered in the Tennessee legislature this year, help create an environment where wage theft is more likely to happen to undocumented workers.
That's because when workers know they can be arrested and eventually deported by local police, they're not likely to trust any government agency enough to report wage theft. Unscrupulous employers can embrace a pattern of wage theft, followed by firing employers who complain, knowing that few workers will want to speak up if deportation is the consequence. And if you're a dishonest employer, why wouldn't you hire even more workers and pay them below minimum wage if you knew there weren't going to be consequences? SB 1070 is already driving undocumented workers further underground where they can be taken advantage of even more than before.
On the flip side, strong enforcement of wage and safety laws lessens the incentive that dishonest employers have to hire undocumented workers. And, it gets to the root of the problem: exploitation by some employers who want to operate in sweatshop conditions.
Even though this year has had many bleak moments for those who believe in justice for all workers, there are some hopeful signs and potential new strategies out there. The Progressive States Network reports that in several states, worker rights advocates have been able to change the direction of anti-immigrant bills. They did it by adding amendments to them that strengthened workers' rights.
- In Connecticut, a bill that made it a state crime to hire undocumented immigrants was changed to a bill that went after all employers who don't pay workers' compensation. This is a win for all workers who are risking their lives on the job without the safety net of workers' compensation.
- A Kansas anti-immigrant bill died after amendments were added to it that would severely punish employers who break wage laws.