Vulnerable Workers Mean Vulnerable Communities
Anti-immigrant laws and the lack of a solid path to citizenship leave immigrant workers vulnerable to exploitation—and harm the whole community.
By Aquilina Soriano Versoza Posted on August 11, 2015
Amelia is a retired Filipino domestic worker living in Pilipino Workers Center’s Larry Itliong Village in Los Angeles’s Historic Filipinotown. Since leaving her family and homeland for the United States in the early 1990s to provide opportunities for her children, one of whom is permanently disabled, she has experienced wage theft, sexual assault, homelessness, and human trafficking.
Before she emigrated, Amelia had been working a low-paying, unstable office clerk job. Then she became a domestic helper and nanny for a family in Singapore. The family decided to relocate to the United States and asked her to join them, so she followed the path of many others and joined the ranks of Overseas Filipino Workers, or OFW’s. (There were 2.2 million OFWs as of 2013.) When Amelia arrived with the family in the United States, they confiscated her passport and held the threat of deportation over her head. For over a year, she worked without a day off. She was not allowed to go to church or see a doctor. Amelia says she was never given more than $40 a month as salary, plus a small amount sent directly home to her children. Despite her fear, she was eventually able to arrange to be picked up in the middle of the night by a relative and escape.
For more than 20 years after that escape, Amelia lived and worked as an undocumented caregiver, first in a small facility, then in individual households. Until two years ago, when she received her T visa (a temporary visa for victims of human trafficking), Amelia was one of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in America.
The topic of immigration reform is still a powder keg in the United States. On May 1, 2006, millions of people filled the streets in major cities all across the country to support humane immigration reform and workers’ rights. Nearly 10 years later, comprehensive reform that includes easier pathways to citizenship has still not been realized, but the immigrants’ rights movement has grown stronger, especially as immigrants become key voting blocs in many more states. This growing movement has moved Congress to create reform bills that have made progress and almost been passed into law.
On the state level, many battles have resulted in both immigrant-friendly and anti-immigrant legislation. Places like Alabama and Arizona have passed laws increasing harsh treatment of immigrants and their families. In 2012, Alabama passed HB56, a law even harsher than the notorious SB1070 of Arizona. Among other outrageous provisions, HB56 required the checking of immigration status of students at all levels, from kindergarten through college. It also gave law enforcement the right to ask anyone whom they suspected of being undocumented to prove their immigration status at any lawful stop. This led to a drastic drop in school attendance by Hispanic students and a dramatic increase in racial profiling. While parts of the law were struck down, many were upheld.
In other places, however, momentum is building for immigrant-friendly laws. Domestic worker bills of rights have been passed in New York, Hawaii, California, and Massachusetts, providing guarantees for over-time, paid sick days, and maternity leave for a largely immigrant workforce. In 2013, California passed AB60, a law to provide drivers licenses to undocumented workers, as well as the Trust Act, which limits interaction and cooperation between local law enforcement agencies and the Dept. of Homeland Security. These laws are having great impact on the daily lives of immigrants, who have been under the threat of having their cars towed or afraid to be a witness for or report crimes for fear of deportation.
These laws, the good and the bad, affect immigrants as workers as well. Edith is a Filipina caregiver who used to have to pay for expensive carpooling or choose only live-in jobs because the homes where jobs were available were mostly in isolated residential areas with little bus access. She did not want to risk driving without a license for fear of being stopped by the police, having her car impounded, and being deported. Having a drivers license now opens up her job opportunities to more geographic areas and to families who need their caregivers to drive to doctors appointments.
Despite some gains, immigration laws as they exist today are still making immigrants and their families vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. Amelia’s is one of the increasingly common human trafficking stories; although other immigrants may not have experiences quite as extreme, they nonetheless suffer.
Threat of deportation makes it easier to force workers to accept inhumane working conditions—a major factor in Los Angeles’s status as the wage theft capital of the United States. Currently, 8 out of 10 workers in low-wage industries are victims of wage theft, and $26.2 million dollars are stolen from workers each week in Los Angeles City. Wage theft can take the form of having over-time pay withheld, being asked to work off the clock, being denied rest or meal breaks, having tips stolen, or working piece-rate. Elia Reyes knows this reality all too well. She has been working in the garment industry for over 20 years, where the practice of wage theft is rampant. Her employers pay her by piece rate, a practice common in the garment industry that often amounts to far less than the minimum wage of $9 per hour. Though Reyes works from six o’clock in the morning to six o’clock in the evening, she earns an average of $80 a week—less than the minimum wage for a single day. To make ends meet, she has to use hours outside of work to sell juices, tamales, champurrado, and atole (a hot beverage) on the street.
Wage theft not only takes money out of the pockets of workers and their families, it also affects the community at large. Wage theft lowers the amount of taxes collected for public services, lowers the amount of money spent in the local economy, and makes it difficult for employers who want to operate in compliance with labor laws because their competition can undercut their prices. Immigration laws that disempower undocumented workers make it more difficult to create positive change throughout these low-wage industries.
These laws also create a health crisis. Human Impact Partners in 2014 conducted a study entitled Wage Theft Health Impact Assessment. According to Fabiola Santiago, a researcher with Human Impact Partners, “Wage theft drives workers deeper into poverty. With low incomes, workers find it difficult to afford adequate housing, healthy food, and other resources. These conditions put workers at risk for chronic illnesses such as diabetes, hypertension, and mental health issues. It also means they often can’t afford medication for serious health conditions.”
Supporting Workers Outside of Work
While fighting for better working conditions, we at Pilipino Workers Center are also trying to ameliorate some of the effects of working conditions as they are, including financial and housing instability. At Larry Itliong Village, which we co-developed with Little Tokyo Service Center, we have created a project that considers the needs of immigrants and all other low-income applicants. Together with our partner Mission Asset Fund, we offer all of the tenants not only affordable housing, but financial assistance structured along the existing cultural practices of immigrants.
Traditionally, immigrant communities that cannot access mainstream banking and lending will pool their money together on a monthly basis and take turns accessing the collected amount of money as a way to invest in business ventures, pay tuition fees, or even pay off high interest credit card debt. These informal circles are not counted in their credit history, and have the risk of someone running off with the other circle member’s money. The lending circle program of Pilipino Workers Center and Mission Asset Fund is different because it provides financial education, helps to improve the participants’ credit scores, and is fully guaranteed.
There are three types of lending circles: a regular program that can be used for any purpose; a program that helps immigrants pay fees for either citizenship or deferred action applications (see page 20 for more); and a program that helps individuals and families move into affordable and low-cost housing.
A big hurdle to moving into stable housing is the security deposit, as even with low-cost subsidized housing, tenants are expected to pay a full security deposit. At Larry Itliong Village there is one unit, for example, where the rent is only $150 per month, but the security deposit is $990. The lending program provides a guaranteed voucher to the building at move-in, while the tenant pays the security deposit over a year’s time. Once paid off, a check is issued to the property management. Amelia might now be living in a dilapidated room or informal boarding house or possibly still be homeless if she had not had the assistance of the lending circle program.
In the public discourse around immigration and immigration reform, the human, often harsh stories like Amelia’s are left out of the equation. The broader negative effects that inhumane immigrant measures have on society as a whole are also often missing. A broken immigration system that creates a large group of disenfranchised community members is a problem not only for undocumented immigrants, but is of concern for all who want to eradicate poverty and uplift communities.
When we empower and welcome our entire community, we are making them stronger.
Shelterforce Interview with Ai-jen Poo of the National Domestic Workers Alliance
Aquilina Soriano Versoza is executive director of the Pilipino Workers Center and board president of the National Domestic Workers Alliance.