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February 1997, Volume 4, Number 2

Protecting Immigrants

The Los Angeles Times on January 12, 1997 described how established immigrants sometimes cheat newcomers who accept offers of medical, legal, financial and other services in the ethnic press. Among the examples of exploitation of vulnerable newcomers was a labor broker who charged immigrants $40 to apply for jobs, but never found anyone a job.

All persons, including unauthorized immigrants, can file claims in small claims court, but many do not for fear of detection.

All workers--regardless of legal status--can file complaints with the California labor commissioner, but this office is reportedly slow to respond to worker complaints of low wages and excessive hours. The Los Angeles Times reviewed 700 wage claims filed by workers in southern California since 1993 and found that most were allegations that the worker did not receive the required time-and-a-half base wage for overtime hours worked.

Worker complaints are supposed to be dealt with within six months, but in 1994 in the Los Angeles area, more than a fifth of the workers waited at least a year for results. About a third of those who file complaints with the labor commissioner's office reportedly give up. The number of wage claim filings dropped from 68,000 in 1990 to 44,000 in 1995.

Under the Targeted Industries Protection Program, the labor commissioner has concentrated its enforcement resources on garment manufacturers and agriculture. Some say that this has permitted abuses to go undetected in construction, restaurant, janitor and security guard firms.

The number of TIPP investigations is increasing in garments and decreasing in agriculture. In 1992-93--TIPP began late in 1992--there were 627 agricultural inspections and $2 million in penalties assessed, versus 362 inspections in 1995 and $900,000 in penalties assessed. There were 414 garment inspections in 1992-93 and $4 million in penalties assessed, versus 703 garment inspections in 1995 and $4.9 million in penalties assessed.

The employers most likely to cheat vulnerable immigrant workers, according to the report, are settled immigrants who take advantage of their language and cultural links with the workers being cheated. Many immigrant workers, especially illegal aliens from Asia, are lured to the US by recruiters who establish US companies or institutions and then issue invitations to meetings and seminars so that the foreigners can obtain visas to come to the US.

In many cases, aliens sell or mortgage their land to raise the $5,000 to $50,000 needed to be smuggled into the US. Some estimate that one-fourth of the 76,000 Thai immigrants in California are indebted to smugglers.

According to 1996 Census data, foreign-born workers were 96 percent of the sewing machine operators in California; 91 percent of the farm workers; 76 percent of the maids and housemen; and 64 percent of the construction laborers. Many Filipinos work in home health care and security work; Vietnamese in electronics assembly and wholesale trade; Chinese in garment and retail trade and Mexicans in apparel, farm and service jobs.

Many ethnic groups have started worker protective groups, including the Korean Immigrant Workers Advocates, the Thai Community Development Center and the Filipino Worker Center. Several of these organizations say that Small Claims Court is a faster and surer route to help immigrant workers than the labor commissioner's office.

Don Lee, "Many Find Labor Office Slow to Act," Los Angeles Times, January 13, 1997. Don Lee, "Preying on Vulnerable Newcomers," Los Angeles Times, January 12, 1997.