Immigrant Workers Face Exploitation

By Michelle Chen ’16 and Scarlett Neuberger ’15

American productivity has been rising steadily. As a result, goods and services are often found at low prices for customers. However, benefits to one are almost always at the cost of the other.

Many workers have wages that barely grow because of their status as immigrants. They are often exploited for their labor, facing unexpected and brutal hardships. They represent the low wage job sector with problems such as wage theft and working off the clock. Many of these workers face this type of exploitation because they are undocumented. They speak little to no English and do not have the skills to leave. Some businesses will seek out workers with these weaknesses so as to take advantage of them.

Language barriers, fear, and immigration status make it difficult for workers to use labor protection laws, if they even know of them in the first place. They often have no choice but to take the abuse and small paycheck to provide for their families.A recent study published through the University of Heidelberg economics department claims that managers are more likely to exploit their workers when workers don’t know how they are being taken advantage of.

There are numerous workers such as car washers, manicurists, and waiters who are paid less than minimum wage and work under poor conditions.Carwash operators often violate employment laws such as requiring workers to be permitted to take rest breaks, have access to shade, and have clean drinking water. Workers frequently work more than 10 hours a day and more than six days a week. However, they do not receive overtime pay.

Health in this industry is also hazardous from being constantly exposed to dangerous chemicals without protective gear. Workers in this type of environment are reported to have problems with the kidneys, respiratory system, and nerve deterioration. Finding medical help is also difficult for these workers since most are not covered by health insurance and medical bills can eat up their earnings.

Manicurists are also paid less than minimum wage and are charged with a $100 ‘fee’ to acquire skills. They then work unpaid, relying on tips as their source of income until they are considered worthy of a wage. This usually takes months. When they do finally get their wage, it is about three dollars per hour. Some manicurists work 10-12 hour shifts earning only $30 to $40 each day.

Nail salons have been sprouting up in neighborhoods because they cost little to open. This increases the competition between businesses to have lower prices in order to attract customers, leaving the shops’ workers to suffer. If you ever wondered why getting a manicure can cost as little as $10 – this is why.

The NY Times article, The Price of Nice Nails, reveals the abuses of workers in New York City’s nail salon industry. The investigation found workers suffering from wage theft, mistreatment, and exposure to toxic chemicals.

In addition to the low wages, workers are also constantly exposed to toxic chemicals emitted from products such as nail polish and remover. The beauty products have been linked to serious health problems such as damage to the skin, cancer, abnormal fetal development, and miscarriages.

These workers are obligated to work under horrid conditions and salary wages in order to bring food to the table and have a place to live. It is difficult to find affordable homes with such low income. Many share one-bedroom apartments with complete strangers just to have a place to live. They are forced to live under conditions that are unsanitary and crowded. It is reminiscent of the early twentieth century tenement apartments.

The minimum wage for tipping jobs is considered a flaw in the economics of service industries. According to the Department of Labor of New York State, the government requires a wage of at least $5.65 per hour to employees that receive tips. However, if at the end of the day, the wage and tip does not equal the federal minimum wage, the employer is required to compensate for the employee’s wage to minimum wage.

Many employees, especially immigrants do not know this law. Even if it is known, employers often deny paying the minimum wage. Employees may not speak up about it in fear of deportation.

More than likely you have patronized businesses that exploit their workers – what can be done to help them?

Many may think a simple solution is avoiding businesses that take advantage of workers, but that would probably affect the vulnerable workers negatively rather than actually change things.

Boycotting businesses that take advantage of their workers would only cause workers to lose their jobs. As the businesses lose income and face economic pressure, they may pay their workers less, or lay them off all together.

Supporting workers groups to improve the problems faced by workers such as safety when working with toxic chemicals could be a way to create change.  Better regulations of abuse in these areas would help, however, it is easier said than done.

Workers in these jobs rely on tips as a part of their income. Leaving the tip in the hands of the person that provided service for you would also be a good idea since co-workers or even bosses can take it. Tipping generously would also help workers.

Many industries have labor issues since employers that exploit workers are not uncommon. These problems exist in many jobs from the guy that delivers your food to your local manicurist.

Workers, especially undocumented immigrants, are overworked, abused, and earn low wages. They face poverty, which is not an easy problem to solve.

Smiles welcome you as you enter the store, but take a closer look, and you will see all the issues hidden behind the worker’s mask.

Workers in nail salons are paid below minimum wage and exposed to toxic chemicals.
Workers in nail salons are paid below minimum wage and exposed to toxic chemicals.

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