Day laborers call for action on wage theft
Backers fill meeting to lobby N.O. councilWednesday, July 01, 2009 By Ramon Antonio VargasStaff writer
Arturo Xo Cuz says he is the victim of a street crime: A contractor promised to pay him money to fix up a house and didn't hand him a single cent when the job was finished.
That is no different from a carjacking or a purse snatching, he and other laborers told New Orleans City Council President Arnie Fielkow during a City Hall committee meeting Tuesday.
Xo Cuz, about 30 other mostly Hispanic day laborers and their advocates appeared before Fielkow to urge passage of a city ordinance that would classify shortchanging or denying wages to a hired day laborer a crime akin to robbery. Fielkow hopes to draft the ordinance by August, and his supporters hope it will empower New Orleans Police Department officers to handcuff and book offending employers.
Fielkow, who called wage theft "apprehensible behavior," called the meeting to collect laborers' testimony and expert advice to justify a new ordinance. In addition to that, he attracted Hispanic day laborers, white contractors and black citizens who called the crime "disheartening" and demanded that wage thieves be "locked up and thrown away."
Xo Cuz was a victim of wage theft just two weeks ago, said Jacinta Gonzalez, a local organizer for the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice, the entity largely responsible for winning an audience before Fielkow.
Xo Cuz confronted the contractor who ripped him off after he spoke to Gonzalez's organization, and the worker demanded that he be paid. The contractor, furious that Xo Cuz got help, taunted: "You got lawyers? Well, I got lawyers, too. I dare you to call them."
Xo Cuz took the contractor up on his dare but said he is still waiting to be paid.
That type of behavior shows contractors believe wage theft is "a crime of no consequence," said Luz Molina, a Loyola University law professor.
Recent surveys show Xo Cuz is far from alone. About 80 percent of wage laborers in New Orleans, mostly Hispanic, report they have been stiffed. New Orleans has the highest incidence of wage theft by far in the South, according to a survey by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
"This isn't a few bad apples," Gonzalez said. "It's systematic."
Neither does it affect only the 30 or so members of the Congress of Day Laborers, affiliated with the Center for Racial Justice, who showed up to the council meeting in work clothes and boots, wearing Spanish and English "Stop wage theft!" stickers over their hearts.
Darnell Parker, a black U.S.-born day laborer, said one contractor waited until a grueling job was finished to tell him he was being paid less than expected. The only explanation offered by the contractor was that he changed his mind.
Licensed union contractors also lose out: They are at a disadvantage if they have to compete against freelance contractors who can underpay laborers without facing penalties from a union or the police, experts said.
Wage thieves drive "honest businesses out of business," said Ted Quant, director of Loyola's Twomey Center for Peace through Justice. Homeowners lose out at that point because the pool of contractors available for jobs thins, Fielkow said.
Laws already on the books "aren't enough," Molina said.
Though workers already can file civil suits against employers who don't pay wages in full, migrant workers have difficulty taking such measures.
Advocacy groups can file civil suits on their behalf. Workers, however, often fear that local authorities will probe their residency status and turn them over to federal immigration officials if they are illegal.
If illegal workers take a chance and call the New Orleans Police Department to report stolen wages, the officers often back off and tell them to file a civil complaint, advocates say. The U.S. Department of Labor is supposed to crack down on contractors who violate wage laws, but a March report by the Government Accountability Office found the department's enforcement has been lax.
Fielkow expects all City Council members to support a new ordinance. Councilwoman Cynthia Willard-Lewis, who attended part of the meeting, declared her support Tuesday.
Fielkow told the workers "gracias" for their work.
He said he hopes passing the ordinance in New Orleans will not only go far in eliminating wage theft in New Orleans, but also "show the country and the world that we are doing the right thing."
Click to view image: '7d7e1df6d57a-bandito.jpg'
|Liveleak on Facebook|