MARCH AGAINST WAGE THEFT – MAY 1, 2009

Workers Protesting Wage Theft Greeted by ICE at DOL Doorsteps
DOL Chief refuses to meet with workers but ICE arrives to conduct surveillance

Over a hundred workers arrived at the steps of the Department of Labor on May 1st to report an egregious case of wage theft.  They expected to be greeted by the new director of the DOL’s Wage and Hour Division, Frank McGriggs. Instead, they were greeted at DOL’s doorstep by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Agent William Watson.
Because of the ICE surveillance, several members of the Congress of Day Laborers decided not to speak publicly about their wage theft cases.  Workers were marching to push for a new era of labor law enforcement in New Orleans and are members of the Congress of Day Laborers, a project of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice.

Counsel for the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice intervened and overheard the ICE agent describing the peaceful May 1st solidarity march including over 100 workers accompanied by a brass band as a “protest against ICE” that looked like it “could turn violent.”

“I rebuilt New Orleans after Katrina – but my employer stole thousands from me,” said one member of the Congress of Day Laborer who asked that his name not be used.  “They tell me there are labor laws in this county that protect me from abuse. But how can I report violations of labor law if ICE blocks the doors to the Department of Labor?”
“ICE sent a clear message to hundreds of workers today,” said Saket Soni, Executive Director of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice.  “If you face labor exploitation, report it at your own risk. You will be surveilled. You may be deported.”
Workers came to get a public commitment from the DOL that their cases of wage theft would be investigated seriously.  Workers previously reported two egregious cases involving violations of the Davis Bacon Act by contractors receiving federal funds.  Workers were robbed by employers who received federal contracts to build affordable housing in post-Katrina New Orleans.

Newly appointed Wage and Hour Division (WHD) Chief Frank McGriggs refused to come out of the building to communicate publically to workers that they were welcome at DOL.

When he was later confronted about the chilling effect of ICE’s presence in the doorway of the DOL, he continued to insist that the DOL’s doors were always open.
In point of fact, over 100 day laborers consulted after the incident reported that they would not bring wage theft cases to the DOL and would not enter the building given ICE’s presence there.

Workers attempting to enter the building in the past two weeks also found that DOL would not allow workers to enter without photo identification, in effect excluding undocumented workers and homeless and low-income American workers without documentation from the building.

In a conversation with Workers’ Center Counsel, DOL’s regional public affairs director Elizabeth Todd said, “If ICE wants to stand in the doorway of our building, there’s nothing we can do about it.”

“We’re disappointed that DOL is allowing ICE to police its house.  We thought the federal laws protected all workers,” said one of the day laborers who asked that his name not be used.  Soni added: “The federal authorities are facing a crisis of confidence in the community.  They need to demonstrate that workers who come forward to report labor exploitation will be protected not punished.  A system where the immigration laws are enforced will ensure that employer retaliation continues and labor standards continued to drop.  This is bad for all workers in the city.”

“Just a day after The Department of Homeland Security issued its new directive to ICE on worksite enforcement, today’s situation in New Orleans exemplifies why the DOL and DHS need to rethink national priorities so that workers facing abuse can come out of the shadows and report abuse,” said Marielena Hincapie, Executive Director of the National Immigration Law Center.

Background: Workers have recently reported federal wage violations on two projects: the Savoy Apartments, formerly the Desire housing project (the contractor is Greystar Development and Construction); and the Walnut Square Apartments Project (contractor Walton Construction).  Workers also face wage theft while working on the Oak Villa Apartments, contracted to Harris Builders, LLC.  Greystar and Walton received Federal and State funding in order to build affordable housing, and then robbed the workers of their salaries – in violation of the Davis Bacon Act and federal labor law.

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