Workers in America under siege
By Leah Pike
This summer, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) conducted workplace raids of Corso’s Flower and Garden Center in Sandusky, and Fresh Mark meatpacking plants in Salem, Massillon and Canton. They were among ICE’s largest raids under the Trump Administration, resulting in the detention of over 200 Ohioans. The arrest and potential deportation of these workers is a misapplication of executive power. It’s the employers, especially Fresh Mark, who should be held accountable, and whose behavior illustrates a systemic problem in the labor market -- companies seek out and depend on undocumented workers because those workers are easily exploited.
Out of fear of deportation, undocumented workers may be unlikely to file complaints when an employer violates their rights to fair pay or a safe workplace. These conditions affect other workers as well -- when a company criminally underpays a subset of employees, it’s easier to keep everyone else’s wages low too. And these hazardous conditions don’t discriminate based on citizenship.
These aren’t theoretical concerns: Fresh Mark, which employed 146 of the workers detained in June, has been accused of forging Social Security cards and state IDs for undocumented workers. Three Fresh Mark workers have died in Fresh Mark plants since 2011, and at least two lost fingers to their machines in the last decade.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) investigated Fresh Mark following the most recent death in December 2017. Investigators ruled the death accidental and ordered the company to pay a fine of $130,000. Since then, Fresh Mark has not compensated the deceased worker’s family, or shown evidence of increased workplace safety.
Most of the people detained in these raids have been released.Those who filed for asylum have the right to apply for work permits. But even with a permit, options are limited. Some of the people arrested in June’s raids have returned to work for the same employer. Unless they choose “voluntary departure,” as some reportedly have, these workers long wait for any resolution. The average immigration case in Ohio lasts 803 days, one of the longest in the nation.
Fresh Mark and companies like it exploit weaknesses in labor law to cut costs. Republicans in the Ohio legislature want to make it even easier for them to do so: They repeatedly have introduced legislation to prevent undocumented workers from collecting workers’ compensation when they are injured on the job. Such a move would not only provide legal cover for unscrupulous employers, it would incentivize them to hire more unprotected workers.
Fresh Mark is a particularly bad actor, but poor treatment of undocumented workers is not unique. Throughout the United States, fear muzzles undocumented workers from advocating for themselves at work, or seeking employment elsewhere when they face poor treatment. The U.S. citizens who work alongside them are also harmed by low pay and poor working conditions. Our current immigration policies deny undocumented workers a clear path to continuous work visas or citizenship while cracking down on workers, but not the firms that employ them. It has become a common and profitable business practice for companies to rely on vulnerable undocumented immigrants. When those firms are not held liable, they reap a cost advantage against competitors that operate above board. Policymakers can and should fix this problem by holding employers accountable, protecting all workers with strong workers’ compensation laws, and passing a living wage for everyone.