A lot has been said about the threat of violent crime on the US-Mexico border, despite the decline in many crime rates on the US side of the international line. But a real crime wave has been creeping along under the media radar screen and claiming victims-wage theft.
Compiled by the non-profit Paso del Norte Civil Rights Project (PCRP) and other labor advocates, a new report documents how wage thieves are robbing immigrant and other low-paid workers in El Paso and southern Dona Ana County, New Mexico.
“There’s no doubt it’s been increasing as an issue among low-wage immigrant workers in the last 5 to 7 years,” Chris Benoit, PCRP staff attorney in El Paso, told Frontera NorteSur.
In “El Paso’s Newest Crime Wave: A Wage Theft Epidemic in the Borderlands,” the stories of workers like Gabriela Barraza are interwoven with hard numbers on violations of federal minimum wage laws, overtime abuses and differences in wage earnings broken down by gender, immigration status and English language ability.
After working as an El Paso domestic employee in a private household, Barraza contacted the local Labor Justice Committee for help in recovering more than $1,000 in back wages she calculated her employer owed for work performed over the course of one year. Barraza joined in a lawsuit to recover her back pay and eventually reached a settlement with the bosses.
“I did work throughout the house and spent every week taking care of the employers’ children,” Barraza is quoted in the report. “I worked long weeks for little pay, but even after I realized how little my employers were paying me. I felt bad about complaining about the pay because I was so close to the child.”
Barraza’s dilemma was not an unusual one for many domestic workers employed in El Paso and across the US. In the border city, the toil of domestic workers from neighboring Ciudad Juarez has long been a cornerstone of the economic and social structure. According to Benoit, the local employment of domestic workers is even more prevalent than in other US urban centers where usually very affluent people stand out as employers of household help.
“We’ve gone up against people who’ve had very little money,” Benoit said of the class background of domestic worker employers. “That’s pretty unique to this area.”
El Paso’s domestic workers experience many of the same working conditions as millions of household helpers across the US and around the globe. Last month, the United Nation’s International Labor Organization (ILO) adopted the Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers, a set of standards that upholds labor rights and defends minimum wage, overtime and rest period guarantees.
“Bringing the domestic workers into the fold of our values is a strong move, for them and for all workers who aspire to decent work, but it also has strong implications for migration and of course for gender equality,” said Juan Somavia, the ILO’s general director in a statement.
But as the El Paso report portrays, domestic workers are far from alone in being deprived of their just pay and fair treatment. To document the rip-off, members of the Border Network for Human Rights, Labor Justice Committee and the PCRP fanned out across south El Paso, El Paso County and Sunland Park, New Mexico. From June 2010 to March 2011, they interviewed 253 workers who were identified as laboring in low-paying businesses.
The survey revealed that 20 percent of the interviewees had received below the $7.25 per hour federal minimum wage, with women bearing “the brunt of minimum wage violations” at a rate nearly double that of men. Almost half the El Paso female domestic workers interviewed reported receiving less than the minimum wage.
Of the workers interviewed, 93 percent were Latino and nearly 30 percent had less than 10 years residing in the US. Gender was evenly split, with most workers between 36 and 64 years of age. Close to 60 percent of the survey participants worked in construction or in the domestic help business.
Dr. Maria Cristina Morales, a migrant labor researcher, served as the consultant in the design and then the analysis of the survey.
The report mentions a worker who made $1.60 an hour-a wage equivalent to the pay in the maquiladora export plants across the river in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Benoit said the existence of such miserably-compensated work in the US drives down the broader wage scale and devalues the work of all.
“When people are being paid $1.60 per hour it affects everybody up to doctors,” Benoit said. “I think it goes to show where under enforcement has gotten us, combined with his kind of vulnerable labor force.”
The report’s authors critique federal and state labor law enforcement in the Paso del Norte region, noting that the Texas Workforce Commission, the agency charged with enforcing the law locally, has only a handful inspectors working out of offices in Austin who are prohibited from conducting field investigations. According to the report, the US Department of Labor is also hamstrung, with just over 1,000 investigators for more than 7 million workplaces nationwide.
“Estimates are that the chance of a workplace inspection by the Department of Labor in any given year are well one in 100,000,” the report states.
In timely fashion, the report frames wage law violations in a larger context of low-paid work. Frequently, Texas is held out in the media as a stellar example of job creation during tough economic times. But the El Paso report tells a different side of the story. Citing an earlier piece in the Brownsville Herald, the report stresses that 550,000 of Texas’ 5.7 million workers earned federal minimum wage or below it in 2010.
“El Paso statistics mirror those statewide trends,” the report affirms. “Around eighty percent of low-wage workers interviewed in El Paso for this report earn less than $10 an hour. It is doubtful these are the kind of jobs that will create a healthy economy and sustain El Paso families and communities in the long-run.”
According to Benoit, a closely related problem is the effect of low wages on the public tax base and the ability of government to adequately fund services. In the survey, researchers discovered that 47 percent of all workers got paid in cash, thus reinforcing an underground economy at the expense of needed revenues for unemployment funds, Social Security and Medicare.
“El Paso’s Newest Crime Wave: A Wage Theft Epidemic in the Borderlands” reviews the experiences of other major US cities in addressing wage theft, including Seattle, San Francisco and New Orleans.
In 2009, then-New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson signed into law HB 489. Sponsored by Representative Miguel Garcia (D-Bernalillo), the new law gave workers better protection against retaliation and stiffened penalties for culpable employers.
Prior to the law’s passage, the Santa Fe-based immigrant and labor advocacy organization Somos un Pueblo Unido had documented “hundreds of wage theft abuses” victimizing immigrant workers over the period of a decade, according to the group.
“The passage of this law sends a strong message to the employers who think they can take advantage of those workers,” said Rayos Burciaga, Somos board member, at the time.
In El Paso, the PCRP and its allies have included in their report recommendations and detailed language for a local anti-wage theft ordinance. Attorney Benoit said the groups will be seeking action in the El Paso City Council in the coming weeks.
Readers can access a full copy of the new report at: http://texascivilrightsproject.org/docs/wt/wagetheft_ep110623.pdf
Frontera NorteSur: on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news
Center for Latin American and Border Studies
New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, New Mexico
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