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editorial

Task force exposes abuses of the underground economy

Massachusetts supports a vast underground economy in which tens of thousands of workers, many of them undocumented, work off the books and avoid taxes. But the uncollected revenue is only part of the abuse; many of these workers face exploitation, for they lack either the language skills or the legal status to assert their rights. That’s why the Joint Enforcement Task Force on the Underground Economy and Employee Misclassification is an invaluable resource for Massachusetts; this coalition of various state agencies has been shining a light on the dark corners of the state economy for six years.

Governor Patrick created the task force with the mission to crack down on employment abuses in the underground economy. The task force collected $15.6 million last year in unpaid wages, back taxes, unemployment insurance premiums, fines, and penalties. That likely represents just a small fraction of the unreported, misclassified, and untaxed activity in the underground economy, but the state’s vigilance should sound a warning to employers and a beacon of hope to workers. To date, the task force has collected nearly $56 million from unlawful businesses.

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One of the more egregious violations involved a South Deerfield-based company that ran a soybean and bean sprout farm. In 2013, federal authorities ordered the company to pay $305,500 in back wages and damages to 14 migrant workers who were forced to work up to 90 hours per week and were paid less than $3 per hour in some cases.

It should be noted that many undocumented workers pay taxes on their own, but are disproportionately vulnerable because of their legal status. About 1 in 25 workers in Massachusetts is undocumented. Such a considerable fraction of the workforce deserves basic legal protections, even as the US Congress fails to enact policies that would clarify their status and force their employers to follow the law.

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