Wage Theft Protections in the New Era: More of the Same, But Worse

Written by: Amy Czulada

“The predators and criminal aliens who poison our communities with drugs and prey on innocent, young people…will find no safe haven anywhere in our country. And that is why my administration is launching a nationwide crackdown on sanctuary cities.”

Donald Trump addressed a crowd of supporters on July 25, 2017 with those words in reference to our immigrant communities here in the United States. I had to tolerate them for a mere 3-minute video on my Facebook feed. The effects of such videos and clips of our President’s actions delve much deeper than my interaction with them on social media. They feed both an underbelly of unscrupulous employers who don’t want to pay their workers and the subtle and explicit racism of a population who never interacts with them.

Wage theft isn’t just about the act of employers not paying wages owed to workers; it’s inextricably linked to sentiments of xenophobia, racism, and classism. And comments made by the current President of the United States enable and give permission to employers and any community member to act unjustly toward workers, regardless of what laws exist on the books to protect them.

It can be unfathomable to people who grew up in the comfort of suburban homes and middle class jobs that employers can get away with such blatant violations of law. But the truth is that there are so many barriers to entry for a slew of the population. Language barriers, ignorance of laws, fear, expert evasion on the parts of employers, no capacity to navigate very complex legal systems, administrative processes that take far too long: the list goes on for miles. And when the system has never worked for you, and has actively worked against you, what hope would you have?

The administrative process through the state to submit wage theft claims can take six months to a year to adjudicate, if the department has all of the necessary information. The small claims court process can seem even more intimidating since none of the forms are in Spanish and it involves advocating for oneself in front of a judge and the unscrupulous employer. The wait time for Small Claims Court can also be about a month and there’s no guarantee of collection even if the case is won in court.

The threats are too real and felt by the local community, not just through these acts of wage theft. Efforts to eradicate Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals—hardly ever a bone to the undocumented immigrant community in the first place—under the Trump Administration loom large. The threat of deportations and raids cuts into a person’s ability to perform to the best of their ability in the workplace and at home, ever afraid that la migra (ICE – Immigration and Customs Enforcement) could be lurking around the corner waiting to snatch them. And while it would be imprudent at best and a financial and logistical nightmare at worst to deport the majority of the 11 million plus people laboring in the shadows, la migra is capable of arbitrarily deporting just enough people that the fear sticks.

So an employer threatens you with deportation. And sure, on the books it’s illegal to discriminate against workers based on national origin according to the Equal Opportunity Act, but the President is actively on the television claiming he’s going to round people like you up. Would you trust other aspects of the system to work for you in a world governed by soundbites and video snippets?

But borrowing the words of the late Eduardo Galeano, “We say no.The Wage Theft Direct Action Team says no to the discrimination felt at the local level in the context of workers fighting on a daily basis to support their families. If the contractor can’t be found, we dig around to try to find them. If they refuse to answer our calls, we have our community issue wider calling campaigns to demand the wages be paid. We show up at their houses and try to talk. When they no longer want to engage in any discussions, we demonstrate in front of their homes and businesses. We demonstrate because while a large portion of the general population is ignorant or unwilling to consider how immigrant labor feeds them, clothes them, houses them, and cleans their houses and offices, we’re here to say thank you and act as a small, normative force against the steamrolling systems unable or unwilling to protect them.

A contribution to the DU Just Wages Project is also a contribution to the Wage Theft Direct Action Team. Your support would allow the team to continue to advocate for and with workers who have lost faith in a system that doesn’t protect them. Donations will be used to subsidize small claims court forms, create t-shirts for our actions, and pay a part-time worker as an organizer.

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