Immigration crackdown enables worker exploitation, labor department staff say

Undocumented workers are refusing to cooperate with US Department of Labor (DoL) investigations due to deportation fears, in some cases even declining to accept back wages owed to them and running away from staff who show up at their workplace, according to agency employees and internal emails.

Multiple current and former DoL employees told the Guardian that Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric have caused panic among exploited undocumented workers across industries, preventing labor officials from conducting investigations and enforcing employment laws.

The lack of cooperation by immigrant workers threatens to disrupt a key function of the labor department, which is supposed to operate independently from immigration authorities. The federal government has long claimed that undocumented workers will not risk deportation if they speak up about violations or give the DoL personal information so they can collect stolen wages.

Fearing deportation, undocumented immigrants wary of reporting crimes
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But as the Trump administration has increasingly instilled fear and anxiety in immigrant communities, the DoL’s Wage and Hour Division has struggled to communicate with undocumented workers, according to two DoL sources, who described an atmosphere of low morale and frustration within the agency. As a result, it is becoming easier for employers to mistreat and underpay workers, said the DoL employees, who were not authorized to speak publicly and requested anonymity.

“They’re not just refusing to talk to us. They’re running away from us,” said one employee, recounting stories of undocumented employees fleeing when DoL investigators arrive at a worksite. “It just shows you how fearful they are.”

Even when staff clearly identify themselves as Wage and Hour representatives, “employees just run for the doors”, said another DoL staffer. “This means that those employers who are working with these very vulnerable populations could feel even more empowered to exploit them.”

By Sam Levin for The Guardian
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