FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

When Workers’ Rights Go Unenforced

by DAVID MACARAY

“The Law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich, as well as the poor, to sleep under the bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal.”

—Anatole France

Given the dramatic changes in the political landscape, there’s a joke going around that the Republicans are contemplating changing their party symbol from an elephant to a snowball in Hell.  Funny.

Even if the perception is more or less true—even if the Democrats are on the verge of establishing a Thousand Year Reich—no one should expect to see the benefits trickle down to the folks who most need them.  With or without the Democrats, people working in low-wage jobs will likely continue to be victimized.

Not to pass judgment prematurely on the abilities of Labor Secretary Hilda Solis or the commitment of the Obama administration, but America’s underclass is so far out of kilter, so in need of recalibration, it will take a mammoth effort simply to determine the scope of the problem.

Consider the recent findings by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

In a report issued on March 25, the GAO found that the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division (W&HD), the agency charged with enforcing overtime and minimum wage provisions, had egregiously mishandled several cases involving complaints from low-wage workers.  The report was the result of a “sting” operation conducted by undercover federal agents posing as workers.

The results were close to unbelievable.  It’s one thing for a government bureaucracy to be inefficient and boorish; we’ve all pretty much come to accept that.  But it’s quite another when a help-the-underdog agency performs at near criminal levels of ineptitude.  According to a report published in the New York Times, the extent of the W&HD’s dereliction was staggering.

One example:  an agent posing as a dishwasher complained that he hadn’t been paid the overtime wages due him for almost five months.  The W&HD not only didn’t return his call for several months, but when it did contact him, an agency official told him it would be another 8 to 10 months before they could get around to investigating the claim.

A minimum wage employee calls the Labor Department agency specifically dedicated to representing his interests, and the agency blows him off.  It takes months to get back to the guy, and when they do get back, they tell him they won’t be able to make the initial telephone inquiry for another 8 to 10 months.  Unbelievable.

Another example:  As part of the sting, a call was made to the W&HD reporting that under-age children in a northern California meat-packing plant were working during school hours, and being assigned to dangerous equipment.  That tip should have raised a red flag.  But what did the agency do?  Nothing.  They never responded, and the matter was never investigated. For all the W&HD knows, there’s a whole crew of 11-year olds out there, making sausages.

During the GAO’s investigation it was discovered that claims of hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid overtime (where employees were forced to work “off the clock”) had never even been delved into.  They had been totally ignored.

According to the GAO, the W&HD regularly abandoned cases when the employer didn’t return its preliminary phone call, and in many instances the government official glibly advised the employee to “file a lawsuit” instead of relying on the agency for help.  That has to win the Marie Antoinette Award for callousness:  telling a minimum wage worker who’s been gamed by his employer to go hire a lawyer.

It gets better.

During the nine-month sting operation, it was revealed that five of the ten “scripted” complaints were not even logged into the W&HD’s official records; and in two other cases, the agency reported that the employees in question had been paid their back wages when, in fact, they had not.  So not only did the agency not respond, they cooked the books.

The GAO found numerous instances of field agents being intimidated by employers, bending over backwards to accommodate management, and taking the employer’s side against the employee, including allowing them to make restitution at pennies on the dollar.  The report was a nightmare.

Secretary Solis has vowed to bolster the woefully undermanned agency by hiring an additional 250 investigators.  That’s a start.  But the lesson here is that workers can’t rely on government watchdogs; there are simply too many employees, too few dogs, and too many devious employers looking to swindle vulnerable workers.

With the government ruled out, and employees not having the necessary skills or muscle to do it themselves, that leaves only organized labor.  If anybody ever needed a union to represent them, it’s those vulnerable, low-wage workers who inhabit the economy’s nether region.

Of course, now we know why the Chamber of Commerce fought so hard and spent so much money making sure the EFCA was shot down.  Had universal card check become law, it might have been a whole new ballgame.

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright (“Americana,” “Larva Boy”) and writer, was a former labor union rep.  He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net

David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

Weekend Edition
January 20, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Divide and Rule: Class, Hate, and the 2016 Election
Andrew Levine
When Was America Great?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: This Ain’t a Dream No More, It’s the Real Thing
Yoav Litvin
Making Israel Greater Again: Justice for Palestinians in the Age of Trump
Linda Pentz Gunter
Nuclear Fiddling While the Planet Burns
Ruth Fowler
Standing With Standing Rock: Of Pipelines and Protests
David Green
Why Trump Won: the 50 Percenters Have Spoken
Dave Lindorff
Imagining a Sanders Presidency Beginning on Jan. 20
Pete Dolack
Eight People Own as Much as Half the World
Roger Harris
Too Many People in the World: Names Named
John Berger
The Nature of Mass Demonstrations
Stephen Zielinski
It’s the End of the World as We Know It
David Swanson
Six Things We Should Do Better As Everything Gets Worse
Alci Rengifo
Trump Rex: Ancient Rome’s Shadow Over the Oval Office
Brian Cloughley
What Money Can Buy: the Quiet British-Israeli Scandal
Kent Paterson
Mexico’s Great Winter of Discontent
Norman Solomon
Trump, the Democrats and the Logan Act
David Macaray
Attention, Feminists
Yves Engler
Demanding More From Our Media
James A Haught
Religious Madness in Ulster
Dean Baker
The Economics of the Affordable Care Act
Patrick Bond
Tripping Up Trumpism Through Global Boycott Divestment Sanctions
Robert Fisk
How a Trump Presidency Could Have Been Avoided
Robert Fantina
Trump: What Changes and What Remains the Same
David Rosen
Globalization vs. Empire: Can Trump Contain the Growing Split?
Elliot Sperber
Dystopia
Dan Bacher
New CA Carbon Trading Legislation Answers Big Oil’s Call to Continue Business As Usual
Wayne Clark
A Reset Button for Political America
Chris Welzenbach
“The Death Ship:” An Allegory for Today’s World
Uri Avnery
Being There
Peter Lee
The Deep State and the Sex Tape: Martin Luther King, J. Edgar Hoover, and Thurgood Marshall
Patrick Hiller
Guns Against Grizzlies at Schools or Peace Education as Resistance?
Randy Shields
The Devil’s Real Estate Dictionary
Ron Jacobs
Singing the Body Electric Across Time
Ann Garrison
Fifty-five Years After Lumumba’s Assassination, Congolese See No Relief
Christopher Brauchli
Swing Low Alabama
Dr. Juan Gómez-Quiñones
La Realidad: the Realities of Anti-Mexicanism
Jon Hochschartner
The Five Least Animal-Friendly Senate Democrats
Pauline Murphy
Fighting Fascism: the Irish at the Battle of Cordoba
Susan Block
#GoBonobos in 2017: Happy Year of the Cock!
Louis Proyect
Is Our Future That of “Sense8” or “Mr. Robot”?
Charles R. Larson
Review: Robert Coover’s “Huck out West”
David Yearsley
Manchester-by-the-Sea and the Present Catastrophe
January 19, 2017
Melvin Goodman
America’s Russian Problem
Dave Lindorff
Right a Terrible Wrong: Why Obama Should Reverse Himself and Pardon Leonard Peltier
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail