It's the summer of 2010, and brothers David and Raul Origel are excited. A Charlotte contractor has hired them as subcontractors for a big painting project. The pair, middle-aged Mexican immigrants who have made the Queen City their home for eight years, considers themselves lucky to have secured a steady gig in such a stalled economy. They hire six other men to complete the project, painting a total of 61 apartments in three buildings. The work is intense, but the brothers don't mind. "They wanted a well-done job, and we were happy to do it," said Raul. There is, however, one nagging issue lowering the group morale: total lack of financial compensation. Three months into the project, the Origel brothers hadn't seen a dime of pay for their work. Today, almost a year after they packed up their paintbrushes, the situation is the same.
The Origel brothers are victims of a growing trend affecting Latinos in America: wage theft, a term that applies to workers who do not receive their legally or contractually promised wages.
Some common forms of wage theft include: not paying for overtime, not giving workers their last paycheck after a leaving a job, not paying for all the hours worked, not paying minimum wage, and even not paying a worker at all. A key turning point in the matter was a 2009 study by the nonprofit civil rights organization the Southern Poverty Law Center. Titled "Under Siege: Life for Low-Income Latinos in the South," the study acknowledged that over the last 20 years, the Southeast has experienced a boom in its Latino population — many of whom have found employment in labor-intensive fields such as construction, cleaning, restaurant and factory work. Unfortunately, these industries are notorious for violating wage laws, and government regulation offers them little protection. Foreign-born Latino workers have the highest minimum wage violation rates of any racial/ethnic group. The study cited that in Charlotte, 28 percent said they have performed work for which they were not paid.
Undocumented workers frequently find themselves in a particularly exploitative situation. Although the law doesn't take a person's legal status into account when it comes to being paid for work, employers can manipulate the situation so that workers fear deportation if they report labor law violations. The SPLC's study noted that 66 percent of Latinos in Charlotte who were victims of wage theft said their willingness to speak to police has been affected by the county's 287(g) program, which authorizes state and local officials to — in conjunction with Immigration Custom's Enforcement (ICE) — act as immigration officers. The connection between heavy-handed immigration policy and silence in the face of injustice can also be observed in Arizona, the state with the nation's most notorious proponent of anti-illegal immigration policy; the Arizona Interfaith Alliance for Worker Justice noted a "huge spike" in wage complaints since SB 1070 was signed into law last April. It's a catch-22 Raul Origel is familiar with. "People are afraid to report anything, especially to the police," he said. "They're afraid that they're just going to find themselves in a worse situation."
It's that lack of reporting that leads to repeat offenders of wage theft. The Origels had experienced wage theft before, and it was only after months of working for free that they found out their employer had a reputation for withholding pay. "It made me so angry, I even thought about putting the guy's picture in the paper, as a warning to others," said Raul.
Unsure of what their rights were, the brothers came to the Latin American Coalition looking for direction. It was there that they first met Curt White, client service specialist at the LAC. At the time, White was one of the LAC's many volunteers, but he had a firsthand knowledge of wage theft. White spent about a year and a half working for a Charlotte landscaping company, during which he had to fight for every paycheck he earned, usually earning back what was owed. In a company employing between 12 and 16 individuals, White was the only non-Latino ... and the only documented employee. "The IRS thinks three people work there," he joked. On payday, White would frequently find himself "caught between a rock and a hard place." The employer, knowing he had docked the employees' pay, would stay home on payday and have White hand out the money (most employees were paid in cash). "I tried to advocate for them as much as possible, at the same time hoping they wouldn't kill the messenger," he said. "Which is why he [the employer] would stay home. He knew what he was doing, and he was scared.
"On the one hand he said he hired Latinos because they worked better than anyone else," added White. "On the other, if they started to complain about their wages, he would say that they should just be thankful they had a job and that if they didn't like it, they could leave. Maybe they could leave, but where would they go?"