The State of Worker Protections in the United States: Unregulated Work in New York City

Article excerpt


Using original data gathered in 2003-06, the authors examine the prevalence and types of non-compliance with labour law in New York City. Workplace violations - or "unregulated work" - are widespread across a range of low-wage industries and have been driven by a mix of economic factors as well as public policy. The solution, the authors argue, is to strengthen law enforcement and provide for the new types of employment relationship that have resulted from changes in the organization of work and production.

In this article, we use New York City as a window on the state of worker protections in the United States, and argue that the core employment and labour laws established in the last century are increasingly being violated. As we will see, such violations - constituting what we call "unregulated work" - exist in occupations and industries that span the breadth of the city's economy. These are not isolated, short-lived cases of exploitation. Instead, we find that the systematic violation of workplace laws is threatening to become a way of doing business for unscrupulous employers, documented here for low-wage industries, but increasingly putting pressure on firms higher up the wage ladder to follow suit. Fully addressing this emerging labour market is of utmost importance. It is a task that is intimately tied to solving the problem of the spread of sub-standard jobs in the twenty-first century, and to the challenge of coming to grips with the needs of low-wage and immigrant workers and their families.

Over the past several years, researchers and advocates have begun to document this often appalling world of workplace exploitation in cities and towns across the United States - typically in the form of case studies of particular groups of workers, particular industries, or particular immigrant enclaves or niches. What we still lack, however, is comprehensive research on the scope of workplace violations, the range of industries that are the biggest culprits, the variety of business strategies that result in violations, and the workers who are most affected. The result has been an information vacuum that significantly hampers effective policy responses, whether at the federal, state or local level.

Based on three-and-a-half years of intensive fieldwork, this article maps out, for the first time, the landscape of unregulated work in New York City. We begin with a brief definition of "unregulated work", and give an overview of the types of workplace violation we identified in our research as well as the industries and occupations where violations were found to be concentrated. We then profile three industries - food retail, taxis, and home health care - in order to illustrate in greater detail the employer strategies that shape unregulated work and the working conditions that result. A discussion of workers and intermediaries follows. Our focus then shifts to an analysis of the drivers of unregulated work, and their implications for public policy.

Methods, data and the question of prevalence

This study is the product of primary and secondary research conducted in New York City between 2003 and 2006. From the outset, our research team confronted several challenges: workers in unregulated jobs are often vulnerable and hard to find; employers are reluctant to disclose violations of employment and labour laws; and questions about workplace practices are difficult to construct and answer. In response, our strategy has been to "triangulate" from multiple data points to identify, describe and analyse unregulated work.

The core base of data consists of in-depth interviews with 326 individuals. We first scanned the city's economy for initial evidence of unregulated work, interviewing individuals with expert knowledge in particular industries. We then homed in on 13 industries that showed recurring evidence of unregulated work, and interviewed the full range of stakeholders via a mix of chain referrals and independent contacts. …