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Labor Standards Enforcement Should Become a Pillar of Federal and State Immigration Policymaking Agendas, New MPI Report Recommends

Press Release
Thursday, July 14, 2011

Labor Standards Enforcement Should Become a Pillar of Federal and State Immigration Policymaking Agendas, New MPI Report Recommends

WASHINGTON — As the United States struggles with high rates of unemployment and involuntary part-time employment, enforcement of labor laws should become a higher priority, the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) concludes in a new report that recommends federal and state governments and other stakeholders make labor standards enforcement a pillar of their immigration policymaking agendas.

The presence of vulnerable workers, including unauthorized immigrants, influences labor standards compliance, as does the necessity of many businesses to cut costs. Low-wage workers, especially unauthorized immigrants, face significant challenges, ranging from nonpayment of wages to poor working conditions and unrealized collective bargaining rights. Yet budgetary limitations constrain the ability of enforcement agencies — at both federal and state levels — to carry out their mandates.

An MPI report released today, Labor Standards Enforcement and Low-Wage Immigrants: Creating an Effective Enforcement System, analyzes the elements necessary for an effective labor standards enforcement system and details the enforcement records of the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations through the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division (WHD), Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

The report, by MPI Vice President for Programs Donald Kerwin, focuses on enforcement in industries and firms with heavy concentrations of low-wage immigrant workers, such as the fast-food, garment manufacturing and agriculture industries.

“Despite widespread consensus that employers with heavy concentrations of unauthorized workers are more likely than others to violate labor and workplace safety and health laws, there hasn’t been any comprehensive study in recent years of employers that violate immigration and those that violate labor laws,” Kerwin said. “Such a study should be conducted, and the findings should become a centerpiece of enforcement planning for federal and state regulators.”

The report includes data from 13 states that completed an MPI survey of their labor standards enforcement practices: Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Washington state.

The report finds that state resources devoted to labor standards enforcement rival the nearly $1.1 billion appropriated by the federal government in fiscal 2010 for WHD, OSHA and NLRB enforcement activities, and recommends that the federal and state governments work more closely with each other and with local governments, business and trade associations, labor unions, worker centers and others to leverage knowledge and resources.

“Given current budget realities, the U.S. Labor Department and state labor departments must employ creative, cost-effective approaches to address enforcement challenges,” Kerwin said.

The report, which h ighlights gaps and anomalies in labor protection, recommends that Congress extend core labor protections to categories of workers now exempt, to unauthorized workers and to others not meaningfully afforded protections. It also argues that Congress should strengthen penalties for labor standards violations in order to promote compliance and deter violations.

The MPI report queries whether enhanced labor standards enforcement might lead to reduced illegal immigration and employment of unauthorized immigrants, and suggests further study is necessary.

“While far from perfect, federal labor standards embody enduring national goals. The fact that many unauthorized immigrants work in jobs not covered by these standards places them in jeopardy, drives down wages and working conditions for other employees – whether U.S.-born or immigrant – and undermines the U.S. labor standards enforcement system as a whole,” Kerwin said. “Strengthened and well-enforced standards could safeguard vulnerable workers, while ensuring that scofflaw employers do not benefit at the expense of companies that are complying with the rules.”  

The report is available here.

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The Migration Policy Institute is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit think tank in Washington, D.C. dedicated to analysis of the movement of people worldwide. MPI provides analysis, development and evaluation of migration and refugee policies at the local, national and international levels. For more on MPI, please visit www.migrationpolicy.org.