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How to protect undocumented workers from exploitation

People should try to get word to workers to contact local legal advocates, immigrant activists, or community organizations so they can explain to the workers what their rights are, what the risks are, and what legal avenues exist to help them.

From left: David Molina-Hernández, community and media coordinator with Fuerza Laboral; Patrick Donlan, counsel representative with Sheet Metal Workers RI Local Union 17; Daniel DiRocco, regional organizer with Laborers’ International Union North America; and Steve Kovatsi, organizer with the Sheet Metal Local 17, at a construction site in Providence on May 4. The group of union organizers visit job sites to inform workers about union benefits in an attempt to combat unethical and illegal hiring practices in the construction industry.Matthew Healey for The Boston Globe

A Maine woman recently saw a home in a town near Augusta where apparently a large group of undocumented workers were being housed together. She was distraught and did not know what to do to help them.

The woman reached out to Michael Felsen after he was quoted in a Portland Press Herald article about the 17 undocumented workers found by federal agents in a Lisbon, Maine, home. Felsen is a former US Department of Labor attorney who now works as an adviser on worker protection issues.

“She thought there were about 20 workers” living in the home, Felsen said. “She was fearful that this was another exploitive arrangement similar to the one that was written about in Lisbon. She felt very conflicted and disconcerted about the situation because she had concerns about the workers’ welfare. But she also didn’t want to interject herself because she didn’t want to jeopardize the workers’ situation on the assumption that they were working without authorization and that, if somehow this was brought to light, it would create potential immigration problems for them.”

The woman’s dilemma spotlights an often-ignored tension when discussing undocumented labor. Because of the high cost that unauthorized workers often have to pay if exposed to authorities — they can lose their job or get deported — they have an insidious incentive to remain invisible. But the need that these workers have to stay undetected and earn income is precisely what unscrupulous employers and labor brokers take advantage of; thus that makes it simple for them to not offer workers the wages or safe working conditions required by law. The question of how to address the Maine woman’s concerns does not have easy answers. But there are some policies and remedies that are useful to highlight.


“The way you address the corrosive quality of these situations in our society is to create a floor from which people can stand and speak up,” said Diego Low, director of the Metrowest Worker Center in Framingham and longtime workers’ rights advocate. “And we’re not just talking about wages, we’re not just talking about people who are injured on the job and can’t get the support to recover their health fully. It’s also about sexual harassment of immigrant women. …. There’s a local restaurant where one of our leaders, when she first moved into the area, was told, ‘Look, if you want to work there, you have to sleep with the boss.’”


Low said people seek help and reach out to organizations like his when they’re desperate. “And they do it with ambivalence. They may start to talk to you and then pull back,” he said. What can the Maine woman do? “She probably can’t do anything apart from being a friend, in the remote chance that they reach out to her for something. But language and a whole bunch of other things make that very unlikely,” he said.

Indeed, exploitation of undocumented individuals thrives because they don’t have the ability to come forward in a way that’s protected. Or if there are mechanisms to do so, they don’t know them. It’s why Felsen told the woman she should try to get word to any of the workers to contact local legal advocates, immigrant activists, or community organizations so they can explain to the workers what their rights are, what the risks are, and what legal avenues exist to help them. “That’s an important function that worker centers provide,” Felsen said. They also are likely to be trusted by workers because advocates and organizers at these centers often speak their language.


Then there are small but important legislation fixes to empower workers, such as a Massachusetts bill filed in the House by state Representative Tram Nguyen and in the state Senate by Senator Jamie Eldridge to protect injured employees. The legislation would make it a presumed violation of current anti-retaliation law if a worker is discriminated against or fired within 90 days of filing a workers compensation claim. The prevailing thinking among advocates is that injuries on construction sites, for instance, are underreported because undocumented employees are terrified of getting fired or being reported to federal authorities. So anything that can help shore up protections is a welcome measure.

To be clear, undocumented workers are entitled to labor protections enshrined in US law. Still, worker exploitation is rampant; the stories of labor abuse that I’ve heard are terrifying and ubiquitous. “What happened in Maine with the 17 individuals near Portland … people think it’s exotic. But it’s happening at the restaurant you’re going to this evening, or at the hotel you’ll stay at when visiting your kids, etc.,” Low said. Indeed, undocumented workers are quietly present in our everyday lives and deserve protections just like the rest of us.


Marcela García is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at Follow her @marcela_elisa and on Instagram @marcela_elisa.