1.5 Million Plus: The Wal-Mart Decision’s Undocumented Victims

Isabel was paid only $2.00 per hour for her seven-hour shifts at a restaurant, and the owner confiscated her tips. He also made her and his other women employees purchase “schoolgirl” and “military girl” outfits to wear during night shifts. Elena’s supervisor made her sit on his lap and kiss him on the cheek when she asked him for time off to go the doctor for an injury she suffered at work, a large industrial laundromat. She had been pricked by a needle when handling soiled hospital sheets without any gloves or other protective gear.

These are not isolated incidents. Every day my civil rights organization, LatinoJustice PRLDEF, gets calls from women who are exploited, humiliated and regularly sexually harassed and abused by their employers and co-workers. Many of these women are low-income immigrants; some are undocumented.

It is rare for women like these to speak out because they are terrified that if their immigration status is discovered, they will be fired, or worse, that their families will be separated. Others are not even aware that they have the right to fight discrimination in the workplace, to earn the minimum wage and overtime pay in a safe workplace, or to report physical or sexual abuse regardless of their immigration status.

We have interviewed countless women seeking help for exploitative conditions at work. Usually when one worker is being discriminated against or exploited in a workplace, so are her co-workers. That is what makes the Supreme Court’s decision in Dukes v. Wal-Mart so disappointing.

In the case, Wal-Mart was accused of systemic sex discrimination against 1.5 million women employees. While the Court did not contest the allegations of unlawful and widespread gender bias, it ruled that the case could not go forward as a class action.

That is bad news for the 1.5 million women working at Wal-Marts across the country who will now have to pursue their cases individually or in smaller groups. It is even worse news for women with more limited access to legal representation, because the Court’s ruling will make it even harder for workers to challenge discrimination together.

This is particularly troubling for the most vulnerable workers: undocumented, immigrant women in low-wage industries. Women working long hours for illegally low wages are all around us. They take care of our children and our parents, clean our homes, wash hospital sheets at industrial laundromats and package perfume at factories. We rely on their labor.

The ones who seek help are among the bravest. Most stay silent in the shadows of the underground economy. For these workers, bringing claims together against their exploitative employers can provide additional protection from retaliation and can make it easier to prove their claims. The Supreme Court’s decision in Dukes v. Wal-Mart makes it harder for all workers, but especially the most vulnerable, to enforce their right to a discrimination-free workplace.

Photo from Flickr user Brave New Films under Creative Commons 2.0.


  1. Jackie De Hon says:

    I’m sharing a letter to the editor I wrote and submitted today about the Supreme Court’s dismissal of 1.6 million women’s sex-discrimination suit against Walmart.

    July 3, 2011

    In the spirit of freedom and equality promised in America on this Independence Day Weekend, I submit this letter for consideration.

    Jackie De Hon

    To the Editor:

    I am concerned about the recent Supreme Court dismissal of the sex-discrimination suit 1.6 million women brought against Walmart.

    Here’s my solution. From the time I learned about Walmart’s discriminating against women, I stopped shopping there. Now loss of my little one to two hundred dollars a month won’t make much difference to that corporate giant, but if hundreds—even thousands–of women and men who care about women did the same, we might make enough difference for Walmart administrators to reconsider its “free pass to discriminate based on gender”.

    Join me in a national “girlcott/boycott” of Walmart for as long as it refuses to pay-equal-wages and promote-equally people of both genders according to their education, experience, and quality of work.


    Jackie De Hon, Ph.D.

  2. Hillary Exter says:

    Thanks for your piece Elizabeth. Are there any actions readers can take in support of your important work?

  3. Lisa Applebaum says:

    Great article. Really illuminates the problem. I’m joining the girlcott.

  4. I support a North American-wide girlcott, open to the boys too.

    Alas, my effect doesnt add much as I stopped ‘shopporting’ WalMart back when they ‘won’ the title of Retailer Hall of Shame for discriminating against their female employees and buying from Burma, where the universally condemned regime was, and still is, oppressing the Burmese people including firing on unarmed crowds.

  5. Barbara McDaniel says:

    Thanks for using our photo! These are Mat-Su NOW members outside the Wasilla, Alaska Wal-Mart!

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