Oscar came to the United States at the age of 16 to work. There were no jobs for him in his native Guatemala, and he felt obligated to help support his parents.
He was lured across borders by the promise of work. He believed, as so many immigrants do, that there would be a job for him in America.
For the past five years, he has worked at a Los Angeles car wash that cheated him and other immigrant workers out of pay, refused protective gear and even denied drinking water.
Employers such as car washes, corporate farms, construction companies and lawn care businesses entice immigrants into the United States by providing jobs with no questions asked. They lure undocumented workers in, and then abuse them with impunity. This endangers all workers because the low-wage, hazardous conditions undocumented workers endure can become the standard. This is especially true in bad economic times. More border security is fine. But to ensure safe, family-supporting jobs remain the norm, America must hold employers to account for baiting immigrants.
Like many immigrants, Oscar, now 29, stayed with a relative when he arrived in America. At first, he found work delivering cosmetics. The company treated him decently but laid him off when business declined. That's when he got the job at Vermont Car Wash in L.A.
The owner promised minimum wage, which was $8 an hour then in California. But when Oscar received his first paycheck, he discovered Vermont paid him $7 an hour and compensated him for only about half the hours he worked.
And that was good treatment according to two studies and an investigation by the Los Angeles Times. The L.A. Times inquiry in 2008, which was about the time Oscar began at Vermont, found the car washes "brazenly violate basic labor and immigration laws with little risk of penalty." Some car wash companies gave workers only tips, so they were paid between $10 and $30 a day. Others paid as little as $1.63 an hour.
The University of Illinois at Chicago Labor Education Program investigated car washes in the Windy City and found they ripped off their mostly immigrant work force by about $2.2 million a year. Nearly a quarter of the workers subsisted below the federal level for extreme poverty -- even after they worked more than 40 hours a week. Eighty percent received no protective equipment and many were cut, suffered rashes or experienced nausea and dizziness from the car wash chemicals. Two-thirds did not have access to clean or free drinking water at work.
In addition, a 2008 study by three non-profit organizations, "Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers," found employers who paid low wages in New York City, L.A. and Chicago routinely violated labor laws, committed wage theft and exposed workers to hazards. The workers included undocumented immigrants but native Americans as well.
The L.A. Times investigation and the studies expose several causes for the exploitation. One is insufficient enforcement. Another is the vulnerability of undocumented immigrants.
When workers like Oscar complained, car wash owners threatened them. It's not an empty threat. Last May, after Palermo's Pizza factory workers in Milwaukee signed a petition to form a union, the company fired 89 workers, claiming they were undocumented and refusing to wait for documentation.
Oscar says when he asked his co-workers about the wage theft, they said the owner told them that he could do whatever he wanted because the workers had no rights.
Workers don't really have rights unless they are enforced. Non-profit groups and unions in New York, Illinois and California have helped some workers attain their rights. They've filed numerous lawsuits against car wash companies and badgered state agencies to cite companies for violations. For example, last May, with the help of community groups, immigrant workers at a Bronx car wash sued and four workers at an LA car wash filed a class action suit for unpaid wages and other abuses.
In January of 2012, the California state attorney general's office secured a $1 million settlement from eight car wash companies for wage theft. Last July, a New York judge sentenced a Bronx car wash owner to 32 days in jail and ordered him to pay $150,000 to workers denied minimum wage.
A little less than two years ago, Oscar and the workers at the Vermont Car Wash got help from the Community Labor Environmental Action Network (CLEAN) and the United Steelworkers (USW) union. Oscar said a co-worker told him that the USW could help them get paid their rightful wages if they organized and bargained collectively with the car wash owner. Oscar, who is unmarried and has no children, agreed to meet with an organizer because he was receiving so little in wages that he was having a hard time supporting himself and sending money to his parents. He explained:
"I couldn't put up any longer with what the owner was doing."
When a group of workers told the owner they wanted a union, Oscar thinks the owner was relieved that they weren't filing a costly lawsuit. The owner agreed a year ago to recognize the union, and Oscar and his co-workers now receive the correct pay. They get breaks, drinking water and protective gear like rubber gloves. The USW represents workers at three L.A. car washes now, and the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union represents workers at five in New York City.
Oscar said he believes that if no path to citizenship is provided to the 11 million undocumented immigrants already in America, business owners will feel free to continue to mistreat workers, documented and undocumented, because unions and community groups won't be able to help them all.
President Obama has proposed new legislation that would provide a path to citizenship and further secure the boarders, but, critically, it would also crack down on companies that lure undocumented workers into the country by illegally hiring them.
That is essential to secure the dignity of all workers.