Activists in more than 30 cities, organized by Interfaith Worker Justice and backed by labor groups, are staging a National Day of Action Against Wage Theft on November 18. "As the crisis for working families in the economy has deepened, so too has the crisis of wage theft," says Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ) Executive Director Kim Bobo, perhaps the country's leading reformer addressing the ongoing scandal.
As much as $19 billion is stolen from American workers annually in unpaid overtime and minimum wage violations and, in some cases, through the human trafficking of legal immigrant workers. The latest case to come to light involves alleged horrendous conditions for immigrant workers reportedly hoodwinked in Mexico by a food services contractor for the New York State Fair and kept in near-slavery conditions of $2 an hour.
Indeed, the scandal surfaced when some of these legal guest workers showed up several weeks ago at a Syracuse area clinic, severely dehydrated and malnourished after allegedly being kept in virtual imprisonment in a trailer at the fair and at other locations; they were reportedly being denied thousands of dollars in legal wages owed them while working about 100 hours a week at fairs for months, according to legal filings and Danny Postel, communications coordinator for Interfaith Worker Justice.
"It's one of the most shocking cases of wage theft," Postel says.
The contractor, Pantelis Karageorgis, is the target of a labor standards class-action lawsuit filed last month by Farmworker Legal Services and a Labor Department investigation. But criminal charges by the U.S. Attorney's office have been dropped— "dismissed without prejudice"—and instead a modest settlement involving some back payment for the workers is being hammered out, knowledgeable sources say.
The local workers' rights advocate, Rebecca Fuentes, who helped discover and expose the alleged Syracuse worker abuse, points out, "The guest worker visa program is very flawed, and it ties workers to one employer. That creates perfect conditions for almost slave-like situations," like those facing the apparently starving New York State Fair workers. (She also claims that, at least in her region, the federal Department of Labor is more responsive than the state labor department, which dawdles for months in the face of serious wage theft complaints - a pattern afflicting many weak state labor departments, according to a new survey of over 40 states by Ohio Policy Matters.)
In These Times spoke to the vendor's attorney Thursday seeking comment, but didn't hear back as of this writing.
While Obama's Labor Department under Hilda Solis has been winning high marks for adding new inspectors and its tough rhetoric, as well promoting outreach to workers victimized by wage theft, the on-the-ground enforcement remains uneven. One reason: the under-funded, outgunned Wage and Hour Division has a spotty record for cooperating with local advocates and workers' centers.
Wage theft, it turns out, is one of the most dramatic problems reflecting the income and power inequality described in Arianna Huffington's Third World America book.
The new Interfaith Worker Justice video offers a troubling overview on the scope of wage theft. It's worth a look in advance of next week's 35 city mobilization, with protest locations listed here:
Read the full story at the Working In These Times blog.
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