The Fight Against Worker Exploitation

As a vulnerable work force is victimized, communities start to push back. 

New York State Senator Jessica Ramos, sponsor of S2766/A3350 which was just moved to the Governor for his signature, with workers from New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE). Sen. Ramos and NICE are passionate fighters on behalf of the New York middle class and worker protections.

Running for president, Donald Trump appealed to white nationalism and racism to mobilize his voter base. He bashed Mexican immigrants as criminals, threatening the safety and security of native-born Americans. 

 

But employers know better when it comes to hiring and retaining foreign-born workers. Take the U.S. construction industry, where employers rely upon immigrant workers to get the job done, especially after the Great Recession, which drove a decrease in the ranks of native-born workers and increase in the hiring of immigrants.

According to a 2020 study from The National Association of Home Builders, nearly one in four U.S. construction workers is foreign-born. “Immigrants comprise close to 40% of the construction work force in California and Texas. In Florida, New Jersey and New York, close to 37% of the construction labor force is foreign-born and in Nevada, one out of three construction industry workers come from abroad.”

And almost all of these workers are not in a trade union, making them especially vulnerable to unscrupulous bosses looking to bend the rules in their own favor.

Meet Benito, age 57, who hails from Oaxaca, Mexico. Now a resident of Cincinnati, Ohio, he is a father of four and grandfather to 13 kids. Benito has chosen to shield his identity for fear of retribution from the local construction industry. His exploitation as a construction fireproofing applicator is instructive. Consider the following.

Benito broke his shoulder in two places after a fall from a ladder on Sept. 21, 2018, according to him. “I was installing fireproofing on tubes that electrical cables pass through,” he told Union-Built Matters by phone through a translator. “I fell due to the weak base of the ladder.”

 

The Cheap Equipment Domino Effect

Faulty equipment is a scourge on non-unionized construction sites. In New York City an undocumented worker fell from a ladder provided by Trident General Contracting and suffered a hideous leg fracture. Trident was fined by the Department of Building for providing ladders that did not meet the city’s safety requirements. A week later, at the very same site, a similar accident happened again.

Benito's fall was just the beginning of his woes. His injury has failed to heal properly after two surgeries. This outcome has prevented him from working in construction since then.

Employers disobeying safety regulations and putting immigrant construction workers at risk is just part of the exploitation that they face. A second way that employers exploit immigrant construction workers is wage theft, a soft term for stealing labor income.

Benito, a Spanish speaker, knows about that. His sour experience with wage theft began when the employer won a government bid to build a senior facility.

 

The pay scale for that building project required Benito to earn $30 an hour. It sounded good until the employer cut his pay to $14 an hour. How? The employer reduced Benito’s hours worked.

His wage held at $30 an hour but the employer in effect cut Benito’s pay over 50% by falsifying the hours of actual labor over a three-month period. As a result, instead of earning $14,400 for eight hours of labor a day, five days a week, Benito received $5,760.

It is not a stretch to say that employers know that Spanish-speaking employees have challenges communicating with English speaking government lawmakers and regulatory agencies. This language barrier can and does politically weaken foreign-born workers from resisting employer exploitation such as wage theft.

Just ask Benito. “I didn’t know where to go to regain my lost wages,” he said. “This was before I knew about the Cincinnati Interfaith Workers Center (CIWC).”

Communities Fight Back

According to its website, “the CIWC is part of a network of 27 worker centers across the country which serve more than 16,000 workers each year.” Together, they are making progressive change. “Affiliates such as Fe Y Justicia in Houston, the Micah Center in Grand Rapids and in Southwest Florida (Miami) have all successfully passed wage theft ordinances in their communities.”

In New York, legislation to address wage theft is moving forward, thanks to Democratic State Senator Jessica Ramos, Chair of the Committee on Labor, representing the 13th District. S2766/A3350 would require that general contractors are jointly and severally liable for violations that subcontractors commit on construction sites where immigrant workers are at-risk of wage theft. S2766/A3350 has passed the state Assembly and Senate and awaits—or not—the signature of Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo.  

The Link to Tax Fraud

Tom Juravich is a professor of labor studies and sociology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, who with Dale Belman and Russel Ormiston of the Institute for Construction Economic Research, published a recent study of immigrant workers in the Bay State’s residential construction industry. One of the central themes in the trio’s study is the link between wage theft and tax fraud.

The former reduces the take home pay of exploited construction workers. That weakens their demand, or spending power, in the marketplace.

Small businesses suffer most. You do not need a Ph.D. in economics to see that mom-and-pop shopkeepers operate on razor-thin profit margins and are unable to keep their doors open for long when customers’ purchases of goods and services recede.

The COVID-19 pandemic’s impacts on small and midsize businesses are recent examples. Monopoly companies such as Amazon and Walmart are laughing all the way to the bank, grabbing the customers that Main St. firms have lost.

Moreover, when employers steal wages from their workers they also steal tax revenue from local and state government. That process is a defunding of the public sector, which all Americans rely upon daily, from fire and police services to roads, schools and sewers.

What to do to End Wage Theft? 

“There needs to be penalties assessed against companies and individuals found to have committed wage theft and tax fraud that actually deter the illegal behavior,” according to Belman, Juravich and Ormiston. “Further, there needs to be effective enforcement of these penalties since at the present time, many companies and individuals adjudicated to have violated the law essentially ignore their obligations and disappear or otherwise fail to pay what has been ordered.”

Passing ordinances and laws is one thing. Enforcing them is a different kettle of fish. As the UMass study shows, all of us benefit when construction workers, native- and foreign-born, get the pay they are due for their labor. 

An Industrial Workers of the World motto remains relevant. An injury to one is an injury to all.

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Seth Sandronsky lives and works in Sacramento. He is a journalist and member of the Pacific Media Workers Guild. Email sethsandronsky@gmail.com.

Benito, father of four, broke his shoulder in two places after a fall from a ladder. “I fell due to the weak base of the ladder” provided by the non-union company. His injury has failed to heal after two surgeries virtually ending his construction career.

The employers who exploit their undocumented workers must know that their Spanish-speaking employees have challenges communicating with English speaking government lawmakers and regulatory agencies. This language barrier can and does politically weaken foreign-born workers from resisting employer exploitation such as wage theft.  Photo - GettyImages

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New Yorkers Vs. Wage Theft

New York Attorney General Letitia James

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New York State Senator Jessica Ramos

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New York City Councilmember Francisco Moya

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