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Labor Standards Enforcement and Low-Wage Immigrants: Creating an Effective Enforcement System
July 2011

Labor Standards Enforcement and Low-Wage Immigrants: Creating an Effective Enforcement System

As the United States moves through a period of economic difficulty, characterized by high rates of unemployment, enforcement of labor laws has become an even more critical concern. This report highlights gaps and anomalies in labor protection, while recognizing that U.S. law sets significant standards for minimum wage, overtime pay, child labor, safe and healthy workplaces, antidiscrimination, labor organizing, and collective bargaining.

The report analyzes the labor standards enforcement record of the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations and argues that enforcement of labor laws should become a higher priority, particularly amid high rates of unemployment and underemployment. It asks whether enforcement could play a role in reducing unauthorized employment and illegal immigration, and details the elements necessary for an effective labor standards enforcement system and proposes a way forward.

The report concludes that labor standards enforcement should become a pillar of immigration policymaking. The fact that many unauthorized immigrants work in jobs not covered by federal labor standards places them in jeopardy, drives down wages and working conditions for other employees, and undermines the U.S. labor standards enforcement as a whole. 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.

Table of Contents 

I. Introduction

II. Federal and State Labor Standards Enforcement Systems

III. Identifying Industries and Firms that Violate Labor and Workplace Safety and Health Laws at High Rates

IV. Enforcing Labor Standards under the Clinton, Bush, and Obama Administrations

V. Characteristics of an Effective Enforcement Regime

VI. Potential Growth of the Informal Economy Due to Enhanced Labor Standards Enforcement

VII. Possible Effect of Labor Standards Enforcement on Illegal Migration and Employment

VIII. Conclusion and Recommendations