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Labor officials urge undocumented workers to report abuse

Labor laws are in place to protect workers from employer abuses. For nearly 80 years, the National Labor Relations Board has been charged with making sure employers adhere to labor laws that promote fair wages and working conditions.

Workers can also sue employers who have wronged them under the labor laws, but this is much harder to do as an undocumented immigrant. That's why NLRB officials say the agency often has to work against tension from the country's immigration laws.

An undocumented employee becomes an easy target for unscrupulous business owners who wish to take advantage of them. The employees' lack of documentation becomes a weapon in the workplace that discourages victims of abuse from taking action against their employers.

The current chairman of the NLRB spoke recently on the issue to an advocacy group that helps immigrants secure asylum. He said the agency can aid undocumented workers by investigating violations in the workplace, but laws limit what the NLRB can do to rectify the abuse and punish employers.

For example, a decade-old Supreme Court ruling prevents the NLRB from seeking punitive damages on behalf of undocumented immigrants who are mistreated in the workplace. Punitive damages discourage employers from continuing to violate employment laws. Without the financial penalty, businesses are tempted to return to harmful labor practices.

Oftentimes, undocumented immigrants feel there is no benefit to reporting workplace wrongdoing to the government, since there is no guarantee the laws will help them with financial recovery for job abuses. Undocumented workers also shy away from aiding government investigations because they fear involvement will lead to deportation.

The NLRB chairman wanted to dispel the notion that immigrants have "no hope" when faced with problems on the job. He stressed how important it is for immigrants to participate in investigations, so that abusive employers are held accountable for their wrongdoing.

Source: Hispanic Business, "Impact on Immigrants Is Focus of NLRB Chief," Harold McNeil, May 11, 2012

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