Letter: Wage theft is a widespread problem

August 17, 2012
By

A father of three told me: “This man was looking for people to paint cars in his body shop after hours. He said he’d pay $20 an hour, so I went there after my regular job. I worked there six hours a night. I was there for two weeks and then I asked him for my pay. Then he kicked me out. When I went back with my friend, who he didn’t pay either, to ask for my money, he told us not to come back, and that his girlfriend works for Immigration.” They never received the pay for their work. He told me this story about two years ago, at a free clinic in Metro West where I volunteer.

Rebeca Oliveira’s story about protests at the restaurant Bukhara, owned by One World Cuisine, reflects an underreported reality of American work life: many businesses use wage theft as their standard operating mode. (“Restaurant picketed in wage dispute,” Aug. 3.) These are huge corporations and tiny shops and any size business in between. Many contractors undercut their honest competitors by stealing money from their workers in this way and making cheaper bids than an honest business could.

American workers lose anywhere from $19 billion to 200 billion per year to wage theft, as estimated by various studies. It is a crime that is almost never prosecuted. Affected workers have almost nowhere to turn, except to organizations like Centro Presente, which led last week’s protest.

But the fact that workers have to picket in front of the business that stole their wages shows how difficult the path to restitution is. For most workers, there is no restitution, just the threat of losing their job if they complain.

The Children’s Defense Fund just released its 2012 report on the situation of children in this country. There are 16.4 million poor children in America and 7.4 million living in extreme poverty. Wage theft—whose tactics include the refusal to pay minimum wage, the refusal to pay worked overtime, the deduction of bogus expenses, and the simple refusal to pay at all—is a major reason why these children’s parents cannot provide for them better.

I know many immigrant families affected by wage theft. They are especially vulnerable to this tactic if they are undocumented, or if their access to jobs is limited because of limited language skills. But this crime epidemic affects poor workers across the board. What can we do? Support Centro Presente. Support other workers’ centers like Jobs with Justice here in JP. Pay attention. Thanks to the Gazette for this story.

Julia Koehler, M.D.

Jamaica Plain