Revelations of Extreme 'Slave-Like' Working Conditions and Billions in Wage Theft Drive Nationwide Protests
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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. 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.
Kim Bobo says, in a tempered statement:
Interfaith Worker Justice is pleased with the new DOL leadership’s commitment to wage theft enforcement...Nonetheless, given the crisis of wage theft around the country, the partnerships between the Wage and Hour Division and local workers centers need to be strengthened, and a Wage and Hour Director should be nominated who can develop aggressive and creative approaches to stopping and deterring wage theft.
In fact, one activist notes in blunter terms "The Wage and Hour Divison is way behind OSHA in having a culture of aggressively targeted investigations."
Today's OSHA, of course, despite some new inspectors, is widely viewed as still failing to effectively protect workers. With just a thousand inspectors to oversee abuses and wage theft affecting over 20 million low-wage workers -- the primary but not the sole victim of a crime affecting white-collar workers, too -- the Wage and Hour Division hasn't been able to turn around yet the willful flouting of labor laws essentially encouraged by the Bush Labor Department's years of neglect. (The problem is only worsened by the grossly under-manned state labor agencies, which, a new study by Ohio Policy Matters finds, have less than 700 total investigators enforcing minimum wage and related labor laws in the over 40 states surveyed.)
Indeed, as Ted Smukler, IWJ's policy director sums up, "Secretary Solis is using her bully pulpit and hired 250 additional investigators, but Obama needs to get a Wage and Hour administrator confirmed [there's only an acting director] and they could be doing a lot more in enforcement."