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Research Shows 'Ghost Workers' Common in Migrant Farm Work

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Wednesday, July 6, 2016   

DENVER - Farmworkers frequently are forced into the role of identity thieves in order to get a job, according to a new University of Colorado Denver report.

The research showed that many agribusiness companies routinely give migrant workers who can't legally work in the United States valid documentation that belongs to someone else to mask their identity from authorities. Report author Sarah Horton, an associate professor at CU, said the practice is so common that farmworkers have a term for it: trabajando fantasma, or "ghost worker." She said the practice also helps companies hide the use of child labor and suppress workers' compensation claims.

"When they worked as 'ghosts,' they were terrified of being discovered and being charged with identity theft," she said. "So, most ghost workers said that if they were injured, they would never report the injury."

To avoid paying overtime, she said, some bosses make employees work under a different identity on certain days of the week. Horton found that friends and family members of supervisors hand over valid documents to get kickbacks and boost their reported Social Security earnings.

In California, where Horton conducted more than 10 years of research, children younger than 18 can't legally work more than eight hours a day or 48 hours a week. But during harvest season, she found young workers routinely putting in up to 70 hours a week. To get around child labor laws, she said, bosses often require minors to work under adult documents.

"Some employers do mask the identities of underage workers to hide their hire from state and federal authorities," she said. "So, they intentionally provide minors with the valid documents."

A federal appeals court recently ruled that law enforcement can continue to prosecute undocumented immigrants for working with forged, loaned or stolen documents. Horton said she's hopeful the research will give judges more information about the role the employers play in the practice.

The report is online at onlinelibrary.wiley.com.


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