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The Victimization of Workers

Wage Theft

by DAVID MACARAY

Just when we thought things couldn’t get much worse—with corporations boldly resorting to economic blackmail, jobs being sent to low-wage countries, labor unions being marginalized and demonized, and school teachers being treated as America’s new “enemy”—we learn that business owners are victimizing workers at the low end of the wage curve, precisely the people who can least afford to be cheated.

Also, it’s happening right in my own backyard. According to Tia Koonse of the UCLA Labor Center, “Los Angeles is really the wage theft capital of the country.” Of course, this isn’t because LA is “evil,” or is populated by an inordinate number of greedy bastards or outright thieves (unless you include Hollywood), but rather because it’s home to the greatest concentration of Latino workers, both legal and undocumented.

Southern California restaurants and carwashes are where you will find the most cases of wage theft. Knowing that the majority of their workers either won’t or can’t report the violations to state authorities, the owners of these businesses behave as if they’ve been given a license to steal.

And it’s not as if there aren’t statutes on the books covering this stuff, because there are. Every one of these violations is prohibited by law. Moreover, it’s not a matter of these businesses poring over the existing laws, looking for exemptions—the way Wall Street bankers pore over SEC regulations, looking for (and always finding) loopholes. These businesses don’t bother with any of that legalistic finesse. This is outright theft.

One hears it said that because the owners of these carwashes are Mexicans—as are the employees (“carwasheros”)—it’s none of our (Anglo) business. If these rats are going to victimize “their own kind,” there’s not much we can do about it. That argument is not only dumb, it’s dangerous. Take the early Mafia in the U.S. These were Sicilians who terrorized decent Sicilian and Italian immigrants. What does common nationality have to do with the violation of well-intentioned laws?

Wage theft comes in several forms—everything from your basic refusal to pay minimum wage, to not paying for every hour worked, to using the old tried-and-true method of forcing employees to pay for equipment or training. One trick is to charge exorbitant fees for uniforms. That couldn’t happen in a union shop. If uniforms are mandatory, the union makes sure the company provides them. (Oh, wait….I forgot. Unions are now characterized as “unnecessary.”)

In truth, even though wage theft in the U.S. mainly affects Latino immigrants, it’s got little to do with national origins. As any freelance writer will tell you, this is purely an economic phenomenon….one of those ineluctable “supply and demand” arrangements.

Roughly a decade ago I sold a couple of op-ed pieces to the LA Times. We agreed on a price for each ($300), they sent me a contract, I signed it, they published the articles. The entire experience was quite pleasant. The articles (700 words) were no-sweat to write, and the editor with whom I dealt was the model of professionalism. We spoke on the phone, she asked me a question about the statistics I cited, and that was it.

A year later, I submitted an op-ed to another newspaper. I won’t name the paper, but it has one of the largest circulations in the country. Because the subject matter was timely, they wanted to run it within the next day or two. The editor asked how much the LA Times had paid me for my earlier op-eds. I told him it was $300. He said that was fine, that they would also pay $300.

I received a check for $150. That bothered me. But with so many writers out there looking to be published, and so few outlets available, I had the distressing feeling that this was one of those “take it or leave it” deals, not unlike the unhappy dilemma facing LA’s carwasheros. What are those poor guys expected to do? Not work?

David Macaray is a labor columnist and author (“It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor, 2nd Edition). dmacaray@earthlink.net