“Honorable Wage for Honorable Work!”

Day Laborers, Community Advocates & Allies Fill City Council Chambers for Public Hearing on Wage Theft

Tuesday, June 30, 2009 marks a historic moment for The Congress of Day Laborers in their campaign to stop wage theft in New Orleans. Member-leaders and organizers of the Congress directed a deeply moving public hearing in City Council chambers and commanded the attention of a wide array of supporters and elected officials. The City Council Public Hearing was a testament to the vast amount of support for the Congress and their efforts to end wage theft. Attendees included over fifty members of the New Orleans Congress of Day Laborers, along with advocates and allies from the African American community and Organized Labor. With a full panel of speakers, including members of the Congress, the hearing was heard by the City Council Special Development Projects and Economic Development Committee.

Ted Quant, Director of Loyola University’s Twomey Center for Peace through Justice, emphasized that wage theft is not an isolated issue, but rather it is an “international problem of human slavery.” One of the purposes of the hearing was to shed light on the ubiquitous nature of exploitation and discrimination against the immigrant day laborer community in New Orleans. Wage theft impacts thousands of workers and their families. In a recent survey of day laborers, 80% reported that they had personally experienced wage theft.

The hearing was also a call to legally criminalize wage theft perpetrators. This would, in effect, hold wrongful employers accountable for their actions under the law. Current remedies are not adequately resolving this widespread problem. At present, there is no specific federal or state statute that addresses this issue. While workers are able to file civil suits against employers, they often have to overcome several obstacles due to their immigrant status. Contractors use workers’ immigration status as weapons against them. With the help of police and immigration enforcement agents, many contractors retaliate against honest workers who attempt to organize or report wage theft to authorities.

While Councilman Fielkow asserted that most New Orleans’ contractors are honest employers and “a small few [are giving] a bad name to the whole group,” Jacinta Gonzalez, organizer for the Congress of Day Laborers, insisted that this is not merely an issue of a few bad apples. One speaker declared: “Wage theft is a disease. It’s contagious.”

Feilkow committed to working with the Congress of Day Laborers to pass a law to criminalize employers that exploit workers, and Councilwoman Willard-Lewis expressed her immense support for the passage of such a policy. In his closing statement Councilman Feilkow that he expects the rest of City Council to support the ordinance which he hopes to be drafted by August.

“We came to rebuild and to help our families. But what we found here are contractors who abuse us. When we stand up for our rights the police arrest us. With the help of the Congress we want the City to make sure this stops. We need the City to pass a law so that when contractors don’t treat us like human beings, they face consequences.”