UPDATED 11/22/2010—”When someone is a low-wage worker living below the poverty line, you live pay check to pay check, when you miss a pay check you are choosing between books for children, food for your family, rent for your house. You are required to make decisions based on the question ‘How am I going to survive?'” Brian Payne, who works with the Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha (Center of Workers United in Struggle, or CTUL), described the lives of people who fall victim to wage theft by their employers. Since its establishment in 2005, CTUL has made wage theft and fair working conditions a major focus of its work.
Wage theft is the underpayment or non-payment of workers by employers. This includes situations in which workers are owed money but are not getting paid, are receiving less than minimum wage, or are not being paid for overtime worked.
The Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry DLI uses the terms “wage complaint” or “wage claim” when referring to such issues of worker payment because that wage claims are considered civil rather than criminal matters under Minnesota law. This means that the procedure for recovering wages sometimes takes a long time, because the (DLI) needs proof that employers have actually deducted money from an employee’s payroll before beginning an investigation.
DLI Labor Standards and Apprenticeship Director Roslyn Wade said that they do not make any judgment on employer motivation in a wage complaint situation; some employers may not understand the statutes, some may be deliberate in their actions, and some may not even know of their failure to pay workers.
“We try to educate the employer and bring him up to speed on what the requirements are,” said Wade. “From there we attempt to make the employees whole by identifying what is owed, and directing the employer to pay and pay promptly.”
During the 2010 fiscal year, the MN Department of Labor and Industry received many phone calls, coming from employers, employees, employee advocates, or associations, but most often from employees who felt as though they were being paid unfairly, and started 61 investigations.
CTUL attempts to empower workers to learn about their rights in the workplace. CTUL helps workers fight mistreatment in the workplace by facilitating leadership development and organizing a coalition of workers dedicated to gaining respect where they’re employed.
“Most of their power comes from awareness of their rights in the workplace, through filing complaints, and talking to the community at large to understand the reality of what this employer is doing. We sit down with workers and we think about ‘Where does our power come from?’ and we identify places where have power and then we build it,” said Veronica Mendez, who works for CTUL. Within the last two and a half years, CTUL has been focusing on the root causes of wage theft and how they can enable workers fight against it.
CTUL claims to have recovered as much as $500,000 worth of unpaid wages within the last three years. This accounts for 250 workers that CTUL worked with directly, with an additional 350 affected by changes made in workplaces where the original workers who came to CTUL were employed.
“The reality is that employers find a way to increase productivity by decreasing workers wages, and they can get away with it because legal systems don’t put any consequences on them,” said Mendez. “We want to identify where these problems are most prominent and how to fight them. We are creating an environment where workers can fight back and they can win.”
Calling public attention to the issues found in wage claims is what CTUL believes will enable workers to confront their employers and encourage other workers to fight back. “The majority of people hear about us through word of mouth,” Mendez said, “then they have some level of trust when they’re walking in the door.”
Though Payne and Mendez claim that CTUL’s work has helped dozens of workers recover stolen wages, they are continuing to pursue worker justice on a larger scale with a project called the Justice in Retail Cleaning Campaign. The campaign targets corporations such as SuperValu, Target, and Lunds & Byerly’s that hire out contract cleaning companies to clean their stores. Employees at some contract cleaning companies have experienced human rights violations and unjust labor practices. Multiple cleaning companies all compete for contracts with these corporations, so as their bids for contracts sink lower and lower, their workers’ wages and working conditions does as well.
Mario Colloly, a worker involved with CTUL, said that a group of his co-workers along with CTUL staff approached him to talk about workplace justice issues. Colloly was working at Cub Foods, after a supposed promotion from a job at Festival Foods. His pay decreased while work and responsibilities increased. According to Veronica Mendez of CTUL, “Mario Colloly was making $9 an hour cleaning at Festival Foods and is now making about $7.50 an hour at Cub Foods. At Cub, he is paid about $66 per night rather than a specific hourly wage.”
Colloly was invited to attend a meeting, led by the employees themselves, with several of his co-workers. They have been planning a campaign to highlight the injustices that Colloly and his co-workers have experienced in their workplaces. They have been meeting every other week for about a year and are constantly recruiting workers by going to retail stores and encouraging the employees to participate.
“We wanted to stop being reactive and wanted to start researching on being proactive, like targeting a specific industry in which we can build more long-term systemic change,” said Mendez. “We decided to stop running around like fire fighters putting out fires everywhere, and actually find the root problem of the issue.”
“The goal of the campaign is to pressure these companies to analyze their codes of conduct and labor laws and partner with workers and establish a code of conduct that guarantees fair wages, fair working conditions, and a voice in the workplace,” says Payne.
CORRECTION 11/22/2010: Colloly was working at Cub Foods, after a supposed promotion from a job at Festival Foods. His pay decreased while work and responsibilities increased. According to Veronica Mendez of CTUL, “Mario Colloly was making $9 an hour cleaning at Festival Foods and is now making about $7.50 an hour at Cub Foods. At Cub, he is paid about $66 per night rather than a specific hourly wage.”