Labor Day Reflections: Protecting Low-Wage Workers and Immigrant Workers Improves Job Quality For All

By Eduardo Hernandez 

Every year on Labor Day, we celebrate and recognize the achievements and contributions of workers in the United States, and the role the labor movement has played in shaping workplace rights in our country.  It also offers an opportunity for us to consider new challenges facing workers in the today’s workplace, like the gig economy and the changing nature of low-wage work. Despite the growing diversity of our workforce, low-wage workers and immigrant workers are under attack, forced to bear the brunt of actions by the Trump Administration that is rolling back many pro-worker labor regulations and consistently spewing anti-immigrant rhetoric.

While low wage and immigrant workers provide valuable labor, they typically work in difficult and undesirable jobs, and are often taken advantage of by their employers and singled out by the government. This impacts entire communities. Today, three in 10 working families in the United States may not have enough money to cover basic needs. Rising income inequality continues to make it difficult for low-wage workers and their families to thrive.

Although we’ve seen strong growth in service jobs, we’ve also witnessed how this sector (and others) tend to value profit over the general well-being of workers and are characterized by limited opportunities for advancement, low wages, and close-to-no workplace benefits like health care, retirement, or any form of paid leave. To make matters worse, workplace violations are rampant in many low-wage industries, and it’s no secret that low-wage jobs are largely held by women, people of color, and immigrants.

Of the 43.7 million immigrants living in the United States, approximately 11.3 million are undocumented. All workers deserve labor protections, yet immigrant workers, including those who are undocumented, are particularly vulnerable to wage theft, substandard and unsafe working conditions, unpredictable work schedules, and employer retaliation if they stand up for their rights. These threats are very real right now; employers threaten to report workers to ICE if they complain about unlawful treatment. The Trump Administration’s xenophobic actions have included increased ICE enforcement, resulting in workplace raids across the country. In April, an ICE raid at a meat processing plant in Tennessee resulted in the arrest of at least 97 workers. The next day, over 500 children did not show up to school. Last week, another raid in Texas resulted in 160 workers being taken into ICE custody.  These raids are not isolated incidents—and they lead to traumatic effects on family members and their entire community. A CLASP report found the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and actions are impacting even the youngest of children who express fears that their parent will be taken from them. Child care providers are seeing behavioral changes in children indicative of distress, like increased aggression and separation anxiety. These programs are also reporting decreased attendance and difficulty enrolling new families.

The Trump Administration’s attacks on immigrants and low-wage workers don’t stop there. In the coming weeks, the Trump administration will formally propose a change to federal regulations that would force millions of families – including those with U.S.-born children – to choose between using government services like SNAP and Medicaid to meet their basic needs or reuniting or remaining safely together in the United States. Similarly, at the federal and state levels, there is growing interest among some lawmakers to take away health care, food, and housing assistance from people who don’t work a set number of hours per month.  The notion that denying help to people who don’t meet these requirements would promote work reflects a disconnect with the nature of low-wage work.  The reality is that if people can’t meet their basic needs, they’re less likely to succeed at work.

Every day, multi-issue campaigns work to improve workers’ economic stability and improve job quality. This Labor Day, we must underscore how vital all workers are to the nation and our economy, regardless of immigration status. In the spirit of Labor Day, we urge the labor movement and all Americans to lift up and protect low wage and immigrant workers. We cannot remain silent when low wage workers and immigrants are under attack.  We should instead fight to advance inclusive policy solutions that reduce poverty and improve the health and wellbeing of all.