As Temp Agencies Grow, Many Prey On Undocumented Immigrants For Cheap Labor

The largest American companies are increasingly relying on 2.7 million temporary workers, many of whom are undocumented immigrants. As ProPublica’s Michael Grabell reports, these firms often recruit undocumented immigrants because the fear of deportation means immigrants are mostly helpless under U.S. law to fight worker abuse.

The rise in the temporary workforce has also given rise to what is called “temp towns,” where agencies employ large portions of immigrant communities. Workers must withstand a variety of abuses, and face additional pressure not to speak out because they can just as quickly lose their jobs or worse face deportation.

In temp towns, staffing firms turn to layers of subcontractors who have charged immigrants for finding work and transportation, entirely controlling whether they work that day or not. Using labor brokers called “raiteros,” firms work around laws that require employers to check immigration status and prohibit transportation fees.

One immigrant, Rosa Ramirez, has advocated for basic workers’ rights, but continues to rely on entirely temp income. “Stop forcing workers to wait without pay before the work shift,” Ramirez told managers at one temp agency. “Allow workers to go directly to the work site, because some people have children and they can’t find care that early.” One in 16 workers is a temp where Ramirez lives.


Last year, one in 20 blue collar jobs were temp workers, including one in five manual laborers and one in six assemblers at auto plants. The exploitation of undocumented immigrants’ legal status is rampant in the domestic work force and agriculture industry as well. For example, a lawsuit describes a domestic worker’s treatment — being paid $2 an hour to be locked in a room and denied medication — as “involuntary servitude.”

Since the recession, many of the jobs created in the recovery have been temporary ones. African-Americans and Latinos comprise over 40 percent of the temp workforce, where jobs usually lack benefits and are paid about 40 percent less than permanent ones.

By moving full-time workers to temporary status, companies avoid paying unemployment taxes and dealing with unions. A Reuters survey showed how Walmart — the largest private employer in the U.S. — has turned to temporary staffing: Among 52 stores in the U.S., 27 hired only temporary workers, and another 20 hired a combination of full-time and temp jobs, while the remainder were not hiring.

Massachusetts is one of few states that attempts to address these abuses. Called the Right to Know Act, the law requires temp agencies to disclose basic information to employees, limits transportation costs and prohibits fees that secretly keep workers’ pay below minimum wage. Agencies must also reimburse workers if they are sent to a work site only to find there is no job. Massachusetts’ law is considered a template to help other states start collecting more data on the largely unknown temp industry.