Unregulated Work in the Global City -- Full Report & Chapter Downloads

June 11, 2007

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Unregulated Work in the Global City was motivated by a simple premise: the many laws on the books to protect the working poor mean little if they are not enforced. Over three years of intensive research, the Brennan Center documented a city where jobs pay less than the minimum wage, and sometimes nothing at all; where employers do not pay overtime for 60-hour weeks, and deny meal breaks that are required by law; where vital health and safety regulations are routinely ignored, even after injuries occur; and where workers are subject to blatant discrimination, and retaliated against for speaking up or trying to organize.

Our research suggests that unregulated work is not confined to isolated, short-lived cases of exploitation at the fringe of the city's economy. Instead, the report finds that the systematic violation of federal, state and local law is threatening to become a way of doing business in major low-wage industries. It identifies the types of laws that employers are violating, the business strategies that result in violations, the workers who are most affected, and the policy changes that are needed to renew the promise of workplace protections. The report focuses on New York City, but we are convinced that the conditions it describes exist throughout the American economy.


From Michael Waldman, Executive Director

This groundbreaking study rests on a simple premise: the many laws on the books to protect the working poor mean little if they are not enforced. For far too many of our fellow Americans, the latticework of legal protection may be little more than an illusion. Regardless of what the minimum wage law says, they are not paid the minimum wage. Regardless of what the overtime laws require, they do not receive overtime. They work in unsafe conditions, are easily abused by employers, and have little recourse to their rights or law. This invisible economy is all around us. And as this report shows, it is not limited to a few sweatshops and fly-by-night firms. These practices appear to have spread to established and thriving industries.

Unregulated Work in the Global City is the product of a multi-year research project led by Dr. Annette Bernhardt, one of the nation’s leading experts on low-wage employment. It details a world of work, as the authors write, “outside the experience and imagination of many Americans.” It is a powerful piece of scholarship harnessed to moral passion. It focuses on New York City, but we are convinced that the conditions it describes exist throughout the American economy.

What can we do about it? The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law is a public policy and law institute devoted to democracy and justice. We use our tools of law, scholarship, education and advocacy, seeking to apply core American values to new challenges and new times. We are nonpartisan and independent.

In this we stand in a long tradition of think tank and advocacy organizations that used expertise on behalf of—and in concert with—working people and their advocates. In the early 20th Century, at a similar time of economic dislocation, organizations such as the New York Consumers League and leaders such as Frances Perkins reacted to outrages such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire to propose laws to protect working people. Eventually they passed laws to guarantee overtime, impose a minimum wage, and enable workers to organize unions. They forged an economic compact that offered working people security in exchange for hard work.

The social contract of that era has long since broken down. It is time for us to write a new one, a social contract rooted in the simple idea that people who work the hardest and for the lowest pay deserve strong enforcement and legal protection—the same as everyone else. We now must begin the task of enacting and enforcing new, modern, effective laws to police employers and protect employees. If we take seriously our ideals of justice, of opportunity, indeed, of democracy, we can do no less.

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Related Projects

Project on the Growth of Unregulated Work
Enforcement of Workplace Rights