When Ophelia Hernández, a 53-year-old clothing store owner from El Salvador, got working papers to come to the United States, she jumped at the chance to escape the gang violence and extortionists who had forced her out of business in her native country. As she began her job search in New York, however, Hernández came up against a different kind of extortion in the form of labor sharks.
These predatory employment agencies exploit low-wage job seekers, many of whom are newly arrived or undocumented immigrants, by charging them exorbitant fees for jobs that pay less than the minimum wage – and sometimes don’t even exist.
Sitting in the small apartment in Queens she shares with family members, Hernández recounted how she had to pay a $400 fee for a house-cleaning job that lasted only two weeks and paid well below the legal minimum wage.
“I had to work more than 12 hours a day, six days a week, for just $200 after the fee was deducted,” she said, speaking through an interpreter. “After two weeks, the agency told me the woman who had been doing the job was coming back.”
Today, Hernández gets by looking after her relatives’ children – three toddlers and a 5-year-old. Her search for a more permanent job, one that pays a living wage, has been stymied by the labor sharks. “We can’t trust the agencies,” she said, “but it’s really hard to get any work without them.”