Audelia Molina, a Mexican immigrant, was earning ten cents per garment she trimmed at a factory in Los Angeles, America’s garment-assembly capital. Her pay was so low that she began working 11-hour days to increase output. When she requested a raise, a supervisor denied her request, so she resigned in July 2017 — and turned to a labor-rights attorney for assistance in filing an unpaid-wage complaint with the California Labor Commissioner.
A year later, the state discovered that Molina was being paid $199 per week on average, in violation of overtime laws and rules requiring piece-rate workers to earn at least the state’s then $10.50 hourly minimum wage. However, Molina’s employer did not pay her the nearly $23,000 she was owed, not including attorney fees. Her best option was to apply to a state fund for cheated garment workers, a rare safety net funded by business registration fees in California.
Molina didn’t get her money for another two years. Her former employer has yet to repay the state fund, as required.
Molina, a 30-year resident of California, became entangled in a centuries-old cycle: immigrants perform some of America’s lowest-paying, most arduous jobs, and are among those most victimized by employers who fail to pay them fairly. Even if they have enough support to file a lawsuit or a claim — with a state labor agency, as Molina did, or with the U.S. Department of Labor — they frequently settle for less in order to get money faster or must wait as cases drag on.
Any non-citizen whose job is covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act, like U.S. citizens, has the right to overtime after 40 hours and the minimum hourly wage. However, it is not uncommon for immigrant workers, whether documented or not, to face illegal employer intimidation when asserting their rights.
The United States Department of Labor, which operates in all 50 states, does not ask suspected wage theft victims if they are immigrants. The agency expressly states that complaints are investigated regardless of workers’ immigration status.
Nationally, foreign-born workers account for 16% of all workers in the United States. Immigrants make up 42 percent of all workers in cut-and-sew garment assembly. This is one of the highest proportions of immigrant workers in the country. According to Public Integrity, the cut-and-sew garment industry had the second highest rate of federal wage-violation cases over the last 15 years.
Agriculture, building maintenance, hotel work, restaurant and other food services are other industries with significant numbers of immigrant workers and wage-theft issues. Immigrants and wage issues are also concentrated in construction, nursing homes, warehouses, and car washes in some areas.
The AFL-CIO, the largest labor organization in the United States, has long argued that providing a path to legal status for millions of undocumented workers is critical to reducing wage theft, which harms all workers. After years of inaction, Democrats in control of Congress are struggling to advance proposals for a path for some of the undocumented, the majority of whom have been in the country for years and are deeply ingrained in families and local economies.
Nobody denies that undocumented workers are among the 45,000 Latino and Asian immigrants who sew clothing for many high-end chains and other retail stores in Los Angeles. When the pandemic struck last year, some garment workers began to sew face masks and other critical protective gear.
Narro advocates for a path to legal status, as well as a bill signed by California Gov. Gavin Newsom on September 27 that prohibits piece-rate pay for garment workers unless it is in addition to an hourly wage and part of a collective-bargaining contract. Staff at the nonprofit Garment Worker Center in Los Angeles, where Molina learned about her labor rights, lobbied for the bill for years. According to center staff, wage claims they assisted in filing showed an average hourly wage of about $5 — nowhere near the legal minimums. The law, which goes into effect in 2022, also imposes broad wage-theft liability on retailers who work with factories.
Immigrants toiled in hazardous conditions, which resulted in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York City in 1911. A building was engulfed in flames, killing 146 people, 125 of whom were immigrant women and girls. Workers who were outraged fought for workplace safety and child labor laws, building momentum toward a national minimum wage. However, by the time the standards were approved, immigration had plummeted due to nativist policies such as quotas and exclusions.