Fair Work Center fights for the rights of immigrant workers every day. From our know your rights trainings and free legal services to our partnerships with immigrant community organizations, we stand with low-wage, immigrant workers fighting for their rights on the job.
Recently, we joined the fight for immigrant rights that has been raging for years at the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC) in Tacoma. The NWDC is a privately-operated, for-profit prison that contracts with the federal government to detain community members fighting their immigration cases. It is operated by the GEO Group, the 2nd largest private prison company in the country. GEO has long been under fire for the NWCD’s abysmal conditions and mistreatment of detainees, including those whose labor keeps the detention center running. GEO pays these detainee workers just $1 a day, even though Washington minimum wage is $12 an hour. For the record, $1 a day at the state minimum wage buys you about 5 minutes of work. GEO’s entire business model relies on stealing at least 91% of detainees’ wages, all while generating more than $2 billion in annual revenue.
In September 2017, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson sued GEO Group for failing to pay detainee workers the state minimum wage. This summer, the Fair Work Center was asked to support the lawsuit by filing an amicus brief due to our expertise in enforcing minimum wage protections for Washington workers. An amicus brief is the legal term for providing expertise, information, or other insights to the court to aid in a case that isn’t your own. You can read the brief we filed in support of the Attorney General’s case here. In it we argue that Washington’s wage and hour laws apply to all employees, that wage theft is rampant in our economy, and that GEO is committing wage theft from detained workers.
This lawsuit is about the value of work, and specifically the value of immigrant work. Immigrant workers, even detained immigrant workers, have the right to the legal minimum wage for their work.
As we argue in the brief, “wage theft is a systemic problem that disproportionately impacts vulnerable low-wage workers.” There probably isn’t a more vulnerable worker than a detained immigrant who faces deportation – but all employers in Washington have to follow the law, and all employees in Washington are covered. By calling out GEO’s particularly egregious acts of wage theft, Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s lawsuit has the potential to put all employers on notice: no worker is ripe for exploitation in Washington, which is why Fair Work Center is proud to be lending our expertise to support the suit in this way.
PS – We are seeking third-year law students or recent law graduates interested in applying for public interest fellowships with Fair Work Center beginning in fall 2020, including Skadden, Equal Justice Workers, Justice Catalyst, and other independently funded programs. Learn more here!