Working-Class Struggle

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

With the approaching Olympic Games in Beijing, stories about human-rights abuses against migrant workers in China have become fashionable. The 2007 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting was awarded to theWall Street Journal's coverage that included a story by Mei Fong about a Chinese migrant worker who'd been injured and cheated of wages while toiling far from home. But China has little on the United States when it comes to abuse of migrant workers. While I was speaking with the project group, Leon Victoriano, 47, a construction worker from Guerrero, Mexico, arrived and sat with us.

Victoriano described how, in August 2004, he was chipping away stucco while on a ladder — rather than safer scaffolding — when a piece of concrete flew out and pierced his eyeball. He couldn't work, his employer offered him no recompense, he was uninsured, and he had no assets to speak of. So he lived penniless on the streets, enlisting the Workers' Advocacy Project to help him recover money from the state's Uninsured Employers' Fund. After three years of applying and waiting and insisting, he received $3,000. "I still can't see very well," he says.

UCSF researcher Walter, who immersed himself in the world of day laborers for eight months, described the experience of a former indigenous farmer from Chiapas who had a bucket of hot tar spill on his head, causing extensive and disfiguring burns on his face, neck, and hands. After convalescing for three weeks, the worker returned to his employer to demand compensation. The employer said there had been similar situations many times before, and that he'd never had to pay, because he knew his workers were here illegally. According to Walter's study, the worker eventually realized that the $7 per hour he received from the job where he'd been burned was the best he could get, so he swallowed his pride and returned to work.

Protesters marching and chanting through the streets of Atherton, in hopes they’ll be heard by maids and gardeners toiling in nearby mansions.
Joseph Bommarito
Protesters marching and chanting through the streets of Atherton, in hopes they’ll be heard by maids and gardeners toiling in nearby mansions.
Gloria Esteva uses political protest to advance a law-and-order cause.
R C Rivera
Gloria Esteva uses political protest to advance a law-and-order cause.

"The fundamental problem is that our society has created a class of people who have been excluded from the normal protections," Walter says. "Because of that, it makes them vulnerable on lots of levels, from violence to work injury."

UCLA's 2006 day-labor study, meanwhile, notes that the problems Walter found in San Francisco exist nationwide. "Our findings reveal that the day-labor market is rife with violations of workers' rights," the study's authors write. "Day laborers are regularly denied payment for their work, many are subject to demonstrably hazardous job sites, and most endure insults and abuses by employers."

These conditions are for the most part illegal in California; the state's labor laws apply to all workers, even those who may be here illegally. But the state government department charged with enforcing those laws is the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement, one of those orphan California regulatory agencies that is so underfunded, understaffed, and mismanaged that lawlessness and impunity become a normal way of doing business.

The department has shrunk since the 1970s, even though the California workforce has grown by more than 8 million people during that time. In San Francisco, where Ronen receives hundreds of complaints each year from workers who say they've been ripped off, there's only one hearing officer and two case managers. A 2005 Sacramento Bee report noted that some division investigators were asked to handle 200 cases at one time. In December 2005, the chief of the California agency quit after a year, saying it was a hopeless mess. It is now run by San Francisco attorney Angela M. Bradstreet, who made her bones defending employers against claims they cheated workers.

"They can't handle the volume of these cases," Ronen says. "It takes basically a year from the time you submit a claim to the time you have a judgment that's entered into Superior Court that you can collect money on. Within a year, when you're dealing with a day laborer who's pretty mobile, and a fly-by-night contractor who is disappearing after violating a whole slew of laws, you just lose one or another of them."

Even when it's possible to make a case, some employers' contempt for the law actually plays in their favor. "The complaint process is very passive," Ronen says. "If the employer doesn't show up, there are few ramifications until there's a judgment. The [contractors] know how long it takes."

As a result, Ronen has had to improvise, stretching her lawyerly schedule with the help of volunteers. With the years of working as legal advocates have come skills and confidence beyond what the stereotype of low-paid housekeepers and laborers might lead one to believe.

The stern, unyielding demeanor of Ines Lazarte, a former beautician from La Paz, Bolivia, projects the sense that, given somewhat different circumstances, she might kick my ass. "We work with abusive employers; I suppose that's the term," says Lazarte, glowering from her chair at the offices of La Raza Centro Legal, where she's accompanied by Esteva and Peña. "I could use stronger, more appropriate ones, but I won't. The government's allowing for a situation where people aren't treated equally and that's corrupt."

Lazarte, Esteva, and Peña all make their living as housekeepers. But they're most passionate about their avocation of staring down small-time contractors who are known for ripping off day laborers — who many San Franciscans see every day waiting to hail pickup trucks along Cesar Chavez and Folsom.

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