Working-Class Struggle

Three housekeepers and a day laborer take action against deadbeat employers who abuse immigrants

But in cases where employers pay less than the minimum wage, fail to compensate for on-the-job injuries, or just plain rip off their workers — an ongoing problem among those who work on San Francisco's construction projects – it's the boss who violates California labor law.

To address this problem, Ronen has built up a legal practice that, in what might be considered an ironic twist, depends in large part on the immigrants who work as maids and in day labor.

Rather than feeling exploited for their unpaid efforts, the volunteers consider the Workers' Advocacy Project one of the most valuable aspects of their lives. Their efforts as negotiators, legal strategists, counselors, protesters, and marketers of the project's services are key to its success, Ronen says. During the team's three years of operation, the amount of wages and injury compensation it has recouped for workers has doubled every year.

Hillary Ronen started a program advocating for workers’ rights after she graduated from UC Berkeley Law School in 2003.
Joseph Bommarito
Hillary Ronen started a program advocating for workers’ rights after she graduated from UC Berkeley Law School in 2003.
Housekeeper Vilma Serralta joins a protest at the home of her former employers, who attorneys say owe her more than $100,000.
Joseph Bommarito
Housekeeper Vilma Serralta joins a protest at the home of her former employers, who attorneys say owe her more than $100,000.

In the case of the handful of employers considered hard-core abusers, "they think the whole point of hiring an immigrant was they were supposed to pay under the table," says Ana Maria Loya, executive director of La Raza Centro Legal. "Our message is, that hurts all of us."

I first met Esteva and her volunteer colleagues Lazarte, Peña, and Loyola when I interviewed day laborers two months ago about violent muggers who sometimes target their ranks. Many of the workers were also keen to tell me about another type of transgressor who worsens their already bottom-rung lives.

Nearly every worker had a favorite tale of bad-apple contractors who seemed to make sport of tricking Mexican and Central American immigrants into hauling refuse, hanging Sheetrock, tarring roofs, and performing other backbreaking, dangerous labor on the promise of a fair day's wage — and then ripping them off. (Workers I spoke with on the street didn't want me to use their names, citing problems with their immigration status.)

One man told me about a contractor who hired three men early in the morning to help with construction work, took them to McDonald's at 4 p.m. for a late lunch, left the restaurant to supposedly get something out of his truck, and never returned. Two others recalled instances where employers drove workers to job sites in far-off locales such as Fremont, then never returned, leaving them lost, broke, and with no easy way back to San Francisco. Lazarte says she has heard of several such cases. The laborers sometimes end up spending a hungry night at these faraway sites before figuring out a way back to San Francisco's Mission neighborhood, so they can stand on the street waiting for yet another contractor to offer them a day's work.

Also common were tales of employers who hired individuals or crews for days or weeks, then offered to settle up for less than the agreed-upon pay after the work was done. Other employers, meanwhile, left workers injured or maimed in construction accidents, without providing any recompense for medical expenses or lost wages.

Most scams are more prosaic. One middle-aged laborer told me about the times he'd been driven to job sites, worked all day at what he thought was an agreed-upon wage, then "at 5 p.m., I stopped working, and he never came back."

Sometimes these scams aren't petty. A slim young man from Mexico City, standing on the sidewalk at Cesar Chavez and Valencia, told me how he'd worked for weeks installing wood floors and is owed $2,400 in pay, with no satisfaction in sight. He's been trying to figure out his legal options. "The contractors know we don't know how to put up a legal fight; they know we're alone," he said. "That's why they do it."

While my small survey amounts to a mere collection of anecdotes, it turns out I was witnessing manifestations of a truly widespread phenomenon.

In a 2006 study by faculty at UCLA, the University of Illinois at Chicago, and New School University in New York, researchers interviewed 2,660 day laborers in 139 municipalities in 20 states and found that wage theft was a "routine aspect" of day-labor work. Almost half of the workers surveyed had been denied payment during the previous two months. Workplace injuries, untreated and uncompensated, were also commonplace: one in five workers had suffered a workplace injury. Half of those received no medical care, and two-thirds lost time from work. A tiny fraction had their medical expenses covered by insurance. According to the study: "In most cases, employers evade these costs (i.e., rising workers' compensation premiums), often by simply denying coverage to workers or by threatening workers with nonpayment of wages or other forms of retaliation should they attempt to file a claim."

Another study of day laborers by U.C. San Francisco researcher Nicholas Walter noted that S.F. workers are often afraid to report injuries for fear of deportation. "They work in dangerous settings, and a variety of factors such as lack of training, inadequate safety equipment, and economic pressures further increase their risk of work injury," Walter wrote. "The day laborers are isolated from family and community support, living in a local context of homelessness, competition, and violence." He writes of some cases where, when workers ask for recompense, employers threaten to report them to immigration authorities.

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