Research on the Growth of Unregulated Work

Low-wage labor markets in the United States have undergone substantial changes during the last decade. In industries ranging from construction and food manufacturing to grocery stores, restaurants, janitorial services and home health care, new forms of work organization have generated labor practices that are effectively beyond the reach of government regulation -- what we call "unregulated work.” In these jobs, workers routinely face violations of minimum wage and overtime laws, unsafe working conditions, discrimination, and retaliation for speaking up or trying to organize.

Advocates and policy makers have lacked reliable data on the magnitude of the problem, the industries that are the biggest culprits, and the workers who are most affected. The resulting information vacuum has significantly hampered policy responses, whether at the federal, state or local level. In response, the National Employment Law Project is partnering with researchers, legal advocates and community groups to document this labor market trend. Using a mix of new research tools, including both quantitative and qualitative methods, these collaborations have generated original data and analysis on what is effectively a world of work without laws.

A Landmark Survey of Workplace Violations in America’s Largest Cities

NELP collaborated with the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois-Chicago and the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at UCLA on an ambitious worker survey with the goal of obtaining accurate and statistically representative estimates of the prevalence of workplace violations. In 2008 we surveyed 4,387 workers in low-wage industries in the three largest U.S. cities: Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City. Using an innovative and rigorous methodology developed by Cornell University sociologist Douglas Heckathorn, we were able to reach vulnerable workers who are often missed in standard surveys, such as unauthorized immigrants and those paid in cash.

The result is a landmark survey that offers, for the first time, a window into the current state of worker protections in urban low-wage labor markets, where millions of workers are subject to severe and widespread violations of employment and labor laws.

The Gloves-Off Economy: Workplace Standards at the Bottom of America’s Labor Market

Increasing numbers of employers are breaking, bending or evading long-established laws and standards designed to protect workers, from the minimum wage to the right to organize. In 2008, labor scholars, academics, advocates and several NELP staff members joined forces to examine this “gloves-off” economy, in the first comprehensive analysis of this problem and the creative solutions being explored in communities and industries across the United States.

Unregulated Work in the Global City: A Profile of 13 Industries

From 2003 to 2006, we conducted intensive field research in New York City to better understand unregulated work, including 330 interviews with employers, workers, legal services providers, community groups and government officials, as well as secondary analysis of industry and government datasets. Our in-depth research report includes detailed findings, policy recommendations, and an appendix of 13 industry profiles.

For more information on our work in this area, please contact Annette Bernhardt,

Other key resources:

Good Jobs, Bad Jobs, No Jobs: Labor Markets and Informal Work in Egypt, El Salvador, India, Russia, and South Africa, Global Policy Network

Hopeful Workers, Marginal Jobs: LA's Off-The-Books Labor Force, Economic Roundtable

On the Corner: Day Labor in the United States, by Abel Valenzuela, Nik Theodore, Edwin Melendez, and Ana Luz Gonzalez

Behind the Kitchen Door: Pervasive Inequality in New York City’s Thriving Restaurant Industry (WIEGO)

Home is Where the Work Is: Inside New York’s Domestic Work Industry (WIEGO)