Foreign workers, documented or not, are essential in many industries, including seasonal roles in agriculture, domestic labor, and other areas.
While many of these workers are already in low-wage positions, studies suggest that some employers also commit serious wage theft violations depriving these workers of some of the minimal wages to which they are entitled by law. The numbers show that employers across the country have withheld millions of dollars from these workers in recent years.
How is this happening?
There are several reasons why so many employers get away with (or try to get away with) underpaying guest and undocumented workers.
Often, these workers are afraid to speak up about violations due to visa-specific regulations or their immigration status. Some workers fear that if they report issues of wage theft they may lose the housing or food they depend on to survive or that their family members back home may face retaliation based on the workers’ complaints.
Some immigrant workers are also more vulnerable to unlawful practices by their employers because they are less familiar with their rights under U.S. law may not realize that they are being victimized. For instance, employers might give false information or put workers in the wrong visa category in order to pay them less, or make unauthorized deductions from workers’ paychecks or fail to record the number of overtime hours a person worked accurately.
These measures can make it difficult for individuals to know that that their employers are committing wage violations. And because of the fears many guest workers have (of retaliation and deportation), many are afraid to ask questions or raise concerns when they suspect instances of wage theft.
Is there a way to stop it?
There are no easy or quick fixes to wage theft for any type of worker, whether they are a U.S. citizen, on a visa, or are working without the proper paperwork.
Currently, consular staff is focusing on informing immigrant workers of their rights, including the right to file anonymous complaints. Advocates are also pushing for workers to have access to new jobs if they leave an abusive workplace. Lawmakers are considering tougher penalties for employer misconduct; advocacy groups are urging federal and state organizations to ramp up investigations and fines.
Unfortunately, wage theft still happens despite these efforts, most often in industries with higher percentages of foreign-born workers. Addressing this issue can require aggressive action and attention and the assistance of experienced employment counsel.