Voices from the Frontlines of the Economic Crisis: Jacinta Gonzalez

Jacinta GonzalezNote: This is the written testimony of Jacinta Gonzalez, a witness in a May 12 ad-hoc hearing supported by the Congressional Progressive Caucus. The event was convened by the Institute for Policy Studies and the Inter Alliance Dialogue, a coalition of human rights organizations, to amplify the voices of those most hurt by the economic crisis.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify on the vulnerability of day laborers and the impact of the economic crisis on a population that already experiences severe exploitation and abuse. My name is Jacinta Gonzalez and I am here to represent the National Day Labor Organizing Network, a national coalition of workers centers and community organizations across more than 40 U.S. cities. NDLON represents thousands of day laborers across the country. As a day laborer organizer with the Congress of Day Laborers, a grassroots project of the New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice and a member of NDLON, I have organized hundreds of reconstruction workers and supported their struggle against the devastating impacts of public policy and corporate practice in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

As the economic crisis continues to engulf the country, day laborers in New Orleans — already facing high levels of abuse and exclusion from protections that should be granted to all workers — are among the hardest hit. Every day, workers gather on day laborers’ corners seeking a means to feed their families. Instead of decent jobs with fair pay, they are faced with unsafe work conditions and rampant wage theft. Far from being protected by authorities, workers are direct targets of the very people that are supposed to defend them: local police and ICE routinely execute sting operations and raids on our members. Misguided priorities, harassment, and even criminal acts by law enforcement officers against day laborers are the norm. Consider the difference. When day laborers demand their rights, they often face retaliatory criminal detention and deportation. Meanwhile in a recent case, a Slidell police officer who used his police powers to detain and rob Latinos of cash wages was given only restitution and community service.

Desperate for jobs, day laborers do some of the most dangerous work in the city, yet they often work with no guarantee of safety and are rarely provided with safety equipment. When they are hurt on the job, bosses generally fire them and threaten them with immigration if they complain.

Workers lucky enough to find a job often perform weeks’ and sometimes months’ worth of labor only to be cheated out of their wages, increasing their family’s instability. Furthermore, when workers attempt to organize against these injustices employers retaliate against them. For most of the day laborer and low-wage immigrant population in the U.S., their undocumented status is like a huge sign that says no labor laws need apply. Employers read that message loud and clear, and constantly threaten deportation to coerce workers into accepting whatever terms of employment the boss desires, including working for free.

As the economy falls into a true crisis and unemployment rises, workers, desperate for any job that will allow them to provide for their families, find that more and more contractors only hire them in order to steal their labor. But in New Orleans and across the county members of NDLON are fighting back and organizing against wage theft.

On May 1st 2009, day laborers in New Orleans exposed three egregious cases of wage theft involving companies that received state and federal contracts worth millions of dollars in order to build affordable housing. The contractors robbed the workers of thousands of dollars in clear violation of federal worker protection laws including the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Davis-Bacon Act. Without pay and desperate for work, day laborers like Osly Anariba and Dwayne Rogers have been forced to simply wait and see if the Department of Labor will be able to resolve these disputes while their family’s struggle to make ends meet.

In a recent survey of our members the Congress of Day Laborers found that 80% of the hundreds of workers surveyed had been robbed by contractors many times over in the last year. The majority of these cases go unresolved because authorities such as the police, local city council, the mayor’s office, and the U.S. Department of Labor are unable or unwilling to do anything to stop these crimes from occurring. Simply put: As jobs decline, wage theft is on the rise, and no one but the most vulnerable workers themselves are doing anything to stop it.

In early October 2008, I began to get calls about a group of workers who had bravely stood up against wage theft. Josue Diaz, a 17-year-old Honduran construction worker, was one of a dozen other workers recruited from in front of a gas station in New Orleans to do reconstruction work after hurricanes Gustav and Ike devastated the Gulf Coast. Eager to work and won over by recruiters’ promises of adequate housing, worksite protection, transportation, and a decent salary, Josue and the others boarded the vans of a company called All Dry Construction which took them to Texas. Upon arrival, the day laborers realized that rather than the accommodations they were promised, they would be living in an oil-refinery that had been transformed into a temporary labor camp. Without safety equipment, they were expected to do the most difficult and dangerous work from which their white coworkers were exempt.

When two of the workers were unjustly fired, Josue and the other workers stood up and joined together to demand everyone’s rights. Instead of resolving the labor dispute, the employers violently retaliated against the workers evicting them from the property into a disaster zone and using the police and immigration as their weapon. Josue and 11 other workers spent almost four months in jail in both local and federal detention facilities based on false accusations from their employers and his agents. From jail, Josue and his companions urged New Orleans day labors to continue their fight. Although the Congress of Day Laborers’ organizing efforts were successful in freeing the workers and opening investigations by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the National Labor Relations Board, and the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, Josue and seven others, remain in retaliatory removal proceedings. Meanwhile, their employer remains in business and has thus far suffered minimal penalties.

Josue’s story is that of thousands that have come to rebuild after Katrina and millions more across the country. NDLON’s member organizations hear of thousands of wage theft cases that illuminate a clear pattern. Day laborers, already at the precipice of economic disaster, go from stability to life on the streets because of a single case of wage theft. The compounding impacts of immigration status, total lack of a safety net, and unenforced or inexistent labor laws leave workers with no defense against today’s economy.

On behalf of our members, we call on the Congressional Progressive Caucus to:

  • Intervene in the issue of wage theft. Day Laborers need city, state, and national laws that effectively intervene in wage theft and are not only enforceable but also create a safety net for workers as they fall through the cracks after suffering from wage theft. Members of Congress should strengthen federal worker protection laws and monitor their enforcement at the local level.
  • Expand the right to organize. Because of limited protections and limited enforcement, day laborers are robbed of their fundamental human rights to organize. For all workers, and especially for day laborers, Congress must expand workers’ right to organize and offer more protections to do so. Without such protections workers can’t make reports to worker protection agencies without fearing retaliation from employers, local, and federal law enforcement. When employers are able to exploit any one group of workers, all low-wage workers are hurt. In New Orleans, this is particularly true for the African American community struggling to return home only to find that while the cost of living skyrockets, wages and labor protections are dwindling.
  • Advance immigration reform. Labor rights are incomplete without legalization. The current political economy takes for granted thousands of day laborers that as a disenfranchised population are excluded from labor law. Members of Congress should work towards comprehensive immigration reform that provides real protections for workers, their families, and their communities.