Workers Fight Back Against Wage Theft ‘Epidemic’

(Photo by Gerardo Romo via El Diario)

(Photo by Gerardo Romo via El Diario)

“Stop the wage theft epidemic,” was the slogan some 30 domestic employees and day laborers chanted incessantly in front of the Kings County Supreme Court. The protest, led by the Worker’s Justice Project (WJP), exposed an unscrupulous contractor that is part of a scheme that “exploits working families.”

Protesters denounced employers who create “ghost companies” as a strategy to dodge the authorities and stay in business despite having open cases in the city’s courts.

Samuel Just, owner of Just Cleaning, was arrested last summer by the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office after the WJP documented several wage theft cases. In spite of the pressure from authorities and pro-day laborers groups, the businessman refuses to pay the victims, mostly Latina women.

“Wage theft is a crime. There is no other way to describe it,” said Ligia Guallpa, WJP’s executive director.

Other organizations joined the protest to denounce wage theft for severely affecting immigrant communities. Gonzalo Mercado, executive director of the Staten Island Community Job Center, said that contractors are creating ghost companies to evade the authorities and the activists’ inquiries.

“We have seen employers doing the rounds at the day laborers’ stops with unmarked trucks. Their strategy is to avoid being identified,” he said. “Many workers don’t know who hires them, which makes it more difficult to recover wages.”

Oscar Lezama, 36, from Mexico, said that a Staten Island-based kitchen installation company refused to pay him around $1,000 in overtime.

“I didn’t know who I was working for. I never saw names or logos that would identify the company,” he said.

The organization Staten Island Community Job Center helped Lezama recover his salary through direct negotiations with the owner, but Mercado said that it took a thorough investigation to identify the company.

“The organizations are somehow doing the job of the Department of Labor in recovering the salaries,” said Mercado. “Many contractors prefer direct negotiation so as to avoid having to go to court. This reduces the time it takes to recover the salary, which in turns benefits the worker.”

Activists are calling for tough action against contractors who engage in wage theft repeatedly, asking the city to revoke or deny renewal of licenses.

“Contractors employ subcontractors to hire day laborers and then fail to pay them,” said Guallpa. “Later, in the courts, they claim that they never hired the worker.”

Pro-day laborers activists ask tough action against unscrupulous contractors. (Photo by Gerardo Romo via El Diario)

Pro-day laborer activists ask for tough actions against unscrupulous contractors. (Photo by Gerardo Romo via El Diario)

According to the activist, Samuel Just could be resorting to those strategies to evade responsibility. (…)

The Brooklyn protest was the fifth collective action organized by WJP to expose the owner of Just Cleaning, but it also seeks to raise awareness about wage theft, a problem that according to activists has worsened in the past few years.

“Lack of reporting, fear on the part of undocumented workers and weak laws are nurturing the employers’ abuse,” complained Omar Henríquez, organizer at National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON). “Wage theft involves tax evasion. It is harmful for our government and communities.”

The IRS estimates that employers wrongly classify millions of workers every year throughout the country, avoiding to pay an average of $4,000 in federal taxes for every worker.

Just’s victims declined to comment at their lawyers’ recommendation, but were present at the protest. Several calls to the employer were not returned by press time.

It is estimated that around 2.1 million New Yorkers are victims of wage theft yearly, which represents a loss of $3.2 billion in payments and benefits, according to the report “By a Thousand Cuts: The Complex Face of Wage Theft in New York,” by the Center for Popular Democracy Action (CPDA).

According to the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office, Just would pick up workers in a van at the corner of Marcy and Division avenues in Williamsburg, offering them between $10 and $15 per hour. He would make the day laborers work for up to 27 consecutive hours during the Passover celebration, which involves cleaning homes thoroughly.

At least 11 workers – mostly women – are victims of Just’s practices, but only five dared to report, according to activists.

“Punishing employers like Just will motivate [people to make] reports and will send a clear message to other contractors who break the law. This is the only way we will be able to stop the wage theft epidemic,” said Guallpa.

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