Policing Wage Theft in the Day Labor Market

Source: Stephen Lee, University of California Irvine School of Law Research Paper No. 2014-70, November 25, 2014

From the abstract:
In recent years, workers’ rights advocates have turned to a novel tactic in the fight against employer exploitation: pushing for the criminalization of wage theft. In a growing number of jurisdictions, advocates have persuaded lawmakers to pass laws imposing criminal sanctions — hefty fines and the possibility of imprisonment — onto employers for engaging in these bad acts. In this Essay, I focus on the challenges of enforcing wage theft laws within those industries dependent on unauthorized immigrant labor. I argue that federal immigration enforcement programs — ranging from funding inducements to information-sharing schemes to collateral penalties — dampen the promise of turning to the police as allies in the effort to eradicate wage theft. Specifically, local law enforcement agencies (LEAs) that consider protecting unauthorized immigrants (through the enforcement of wage theft laws) must do so amid competing pressures to identify and detain unauthorized immigrants (through the enforcement of federal immigration laws). The structure and design of these federal immigration enforcement programs make it difficult for LEAs to fully withdraw from the larger enterprise of identifying and removing immigrants, which is necessary to effectively enforce wage theft laws in immigrant-dominated communities. My point here is not to dissuade labor rights advocates from ever turning to the criminal justice system for help in the fight against workplace exploitation. But assessing whether the police can solve the problem of wage theft in the day labor market requires further study. Thus, I conclude the Essay with a research agenda of sorts in which I lay out further research trajectories to help answer the question of when policing wage theft can be both effective and desirable.