Low income is a neglected public health issue

Public health and poverty go hand in hand, the latter oftentimes affecting the former. While the root of poverty is complicated, political, and rarely based on an individual’s capacity to succeed, it has more profound, long term effects that go beyond the bank account.

Consider a reality where wage theft — that is, nonpayment of wages to which workers are entitled — greatly contributes to low income. But it goes beyond that, beyond the matter of nonpayment. Receiving less than minimum wage, receiving no overtime pay, or pay deductions when an employee is sick are all forms of wage theft and can easily — and quickly — lead an individual down the path of poverty.

Such practices are not uncommon among immigrant communities where jobs are typically held in agriculture, child and home care, clothing manufacturing, repair services, day labor, and venues such as restaurants, all of which wage theft is a prevalent practice.

The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) conducted surveys of 433 workers among immigrant Chinatown restaurant workers and found that close to 60 percent reported one or more forms of wage theft. Additionally, almost two-thirds of restaurants had not posted the required minimum wage law signs, leading to a largely uninformed work base.

In many cases of immigrant employees working in kitchens or in agriculture — workplaces where the presence of illegal workers is common — the implications are clear when wage theft occurs: As a legal resident, I have power over you. While not all instances are ones of illegal immigrants and exploitation, many times, that is precisely the case.

In 2016, The Hill published an article about Latinos being hit the hardest with the wage theft epidemic that has become so prevalent in the 21st century. A recent wage theft report also indicates that wage theft is costing workers $50 billion per year all over the country.

“For a worker living from paycheck-to-paycheck in low-wage occupations, with no benefits, healthcare or paid leave, getting shorted on wages can mean not being able to afford medication or falling behind on rent and utilities,” writes Paco Fabián.

Cases of diabetes, obesity, and even breast cancer have all been shown to have links to low wages. Additionally, things like access to pharmaceutical needs, fresh foods, and stable housing — all of which are important variables in public health — are either threatened or virtually nonexistent.

Whether it’s a lack of knowledge on employees’ parts or lack of a moral compass on the part of employers, it is alarming that this egregious act is continuously practiced throughout the country. In his article, Fabián writes that cases of wage theft were evident at every one of the 30 worksites where The Hill had contacted federal contract workers around Washington, DC.

If wage theft is being practiced in the nation’s capital with little to no law enforcement taking place, imagine the vulnerability and exploitation faced by millions in other parts of the country. Though it seems like a simple equation (wage theft + poverty = poor public health), it is a complicated web that leads to that outcome.

Lack of knowledge about employment laws, language barriers, lack of citizenship, and the fear of being replaced are all very real, daily struggles faced by millions. That vulnerability leaves room for employers to abuse and blackmail.

Wage theft is a national plague that has been repeatedly swept off into corners and under rugs, but the reality of this insidious practice must be dealt with loudly and publicly. Because while yes, worker exploitation is a matter of public health and safety, it is also a matter of human rights, discrimination, and slave labor.

Vania Silva is a patient advocate.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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