Mercedes Herrerra is a 39-year-old Mexican immigrant living in Houston, Texas. Working primarily for staffing agencies, she first started cleaning houses and sports facilities in 1996. Paid meager wages, working long hours and travelling some distance to get to new job sites, her staffing agency charged her as much as $100 per week for gloves and cleaning supplies.
As if the massive charges for basic cleaning supplies weren’t enough, her employers found other ways to skim more cash off of her hard work.
“She was never paid for overtime. Her employers would tell her, “There is no overtime. After 40 hours you work for someone else.”
A study conducted in 2008 by the UCLA in conjunction with the National Employment Law Project found that, amongst non-managerial and non-technical workers in the United States, wage theft is a virtual epidemic.
The study found that nearly 70% of workers surveyed had experienced some type of pay violation within the previous week. Of those, the average worker lost $51 out of an average weekly earnings of $339, or nearly 15% of annual wages. For the workers who partook in the study, this meant an average annual loss of $2,634 – no small sum when you’re living on $17,616 a year.
In all, it was estimated that in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles alone, $2.9 billion in wages had been stolen from workers within a years time.
In response to the crisis, organizations have used two general approaches to help stem the tide of wage theft.
The first approach emphasizes legislative action and social service. It calls for political leaders to crack down on employers who break the law, and for union leadership to fulfill their role as mediator between worker and owner. Advocates of this approach prefer protesting through so-called “proper channels.”
The second approach contends that the established political system is partly to blame for the mess in the first place. They argue that in order for us to effectively confront the problem of wage theft in the United States, we will need workers to fight their bosses themselves, instead of relying on either politicians or social service providers. This approach is known as “Direct Action.”
When asked the question “how can we fight wage theft?” Executive Director of Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ), Kim Bobo answered:
“We need a strong union movement. We need a strong network of social services and grassroots organizations. And we need a strong Department of Labor that enforces labor laws.”
Speaking about her new book Wage Theft, she emphasizes, “I have four chapters on how we can strengthen the Labor Department.”
Bobo continued, “we need a secretary of labor who cares about wage theft and who can make it a priority… Most important, we need more cops on the job. There are 750 investigators for 130 million workers in the country… I believe we need to quadruple that staff.”
“Finally,” she concludes, “we need to have meaningful punishments. If you steal wages from workers, there needs to be consequences…”
The interview from which these quotes were taken wrongly emphasizes, this author believes, the role of politicians and service providers in fighting wage theft today.