Working for peanuts: Detained immigrants paid $1 a day

If there's one aspect in a new battle over the treatment of immigrant detainees that both sides agree on, it's this: They're paid just $1 a day. 

But whether that meager pay is legal is now a contested issue, with the Washington state attorney general's office suing private prison operator GEO Group  (GEO) over the detainees' work pay. The lawsuit alleges the $1 a day payment violates the state's minimum wage laws; it also claims the detainees sometimes don't even earn cash, but rather are paid in chips and candy. 

The legal dispute, which appears to be the first of its kind, poses a host of questions about the treatment of detainees in the U.S. at a time when arrests of suspected undocumented immigrants is on the rise. Many of them are housed in facilities operated by private prison companies such as GEO as they await their immigration court hearings. The detention centers aren't jails or prisons, nor have the detainees been convicted. 

"They are breaking Washington state law and exploiting detainees for their profits," Bob Ferguson, the Washington attorney general, told CBS MoneyWatch. "It's not OK."

The minimum wage in Washington state is $11 an hour. The lawsuit alleges that the 1,575-bed detainee center doesn't meet the only legal exemptions to the state's wage law, which applies to residents or inmates of state, county or municipal correctional or detention centers, not for-profit prison companies such as GEO.

"There is certainly no exemption for a for-profit corporation that is forcing people facing civil proceedings" to work for as little as $1, Ferguson said. "Our understanding is that, essentially, the bulk of the work that's not security -- not guards -- is done by the detainees. That's a lot of free labor."

The Tacoma-based Northwest Detention Center can house 1,575 individuals, the lawsuit noted. 

GEO Group called the lawsuit "baseless and meritless." 

"We intend to vigorously defend our company against these claims," it said in an emailed statement. 

The company added that the work program is "volunteer" and that standards are set by the federal government. Those guidelines allow detainees to take part in a voluntary work program, stating they must be paid no less than $1 a day. But the federal government "makes it clear they have to follow all state laws" in operating immigrant detention centers, Ferguson added. 

"No Washington state business can say we're only paying $5 an hour because [the workers] are volunteering to do it," he said. 

The fight over detainee work conditions comes at a time when prisoners are also fighting for better pay and work conditions. In 2016, a hunger strike began at prisons across the country to protest what some said was unfair pay, sometimes as low as 15 cents an hour. Prisons rely on inmate labor to wash floors and do laundry, which some inmates say amounts to "prison slavery." The 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery in 1865, allows forced labor for those "duly convicted" of a crime.

Yet detainees haven't been convicted of breaking the law, and they aren't facing criminal charges, Ferguson pointed out. Some are asylum-seekers, while others may be found to be legally residing within the U.S. and released.

"I understand why people think it might be a jail, but it's not a jail," he said. "The detainees are facing civl proceedings. and that's an important distinction." 

Some detainees allegedly aren't even paid $1 a day, according to NWDC Resistance, a volunteer community group that has sought to draw attention to the treatment of the center's detainees. It said detainees had complained about being made to work until 3 a.m. painting the facility, while others were given chips or soup in exchange for waxing floors. 

It's unclear how much profit that's generating GEO, but it would undoubtedly lower labor costs since such practices put much of the work onto detainees' shoulders rather than hiring staff at $11 an hour. The lawsuit is asking the company to pay a fair wage and repay the missing wages, which the state said is likely "in the millions."

Ferguson added that the practice may also hurt American workers near the facility. He noted, "It's worth pointing out that if [GEO] had to follow the law and pay minimum wage, they would likely hire individuals in the community."