Advocates Speak Up for Illegal Day Laborers Cheated of Wages

Sarahi Uribe, a paralegal for the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, distributes information to day laborers in Northeast Washington on the legal rights to fair pay.
Sarahi Uribe, a paralegal for the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, distributes information to day laborers in Northeast Washington on the legal rights to fair pay. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
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By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 8, 2008

It was a relatively small amount, $720, that José was owed for 72 hours of construction work in the District. Most immigrant day laborers, fleeced by a casual employer and unaware they had any legal recourse, would have swallowed their anger and let the matter drop.

José, 45, who has family to feed in El Salvador, was determined to fight back. He had kept a record of the painting, drywalling and other jobs he had done for a small contractor. He went to a church, which found him a team of lawyers, who took his case to court.

Although few immigrant day laborers realize it, they have the same right as any worker to sue employers for unpaid back wages, even if they are here illegally. In recent months, advocacy groups in the Washington region have been helping such workers file administrative claims and lawsuits, and in some cases they have won.

For José, whose last name is being withheld because he is not in the United States legally, a District superior court judge ruled in February that his claim was more credible than his employer's.

But then the judge hesitated, said one of José's attorneys. Assuming José was an illegal immigrant, the judge wondered aloud whether such a worker was protected by local labor laws, whether he paid taxes and whether he should be entitled to back wages.

Attorney Laura Varela said she and her colleagues quickly objected. They had brought copies of federal statutes and case law showing that all workers in the United States are entitled to recover unpaid wages, regardless of immigration status.

Satisfied, the judge awarded José his money.

It was a rare victory for a group of workers who, advocates said, are cheated out of pay far more often than others and have greater difficulty winning back pay. Officials of the National Day Labor Organizing Network in Los Angeles said a survey of day-laborer sites in 25 states found that half of all workers had been underpaid or not paid at least once.

In the Washington region, hundreds of Hispanic immigrants survive at the legal and economic margins of society, flagging down work vans and hoping to earn a few dollars with no questions asked. Such workers are often easy to fleece, with checks that bounce or threats to call immigration authorities.

Although some of the workers are in the United States legally, they might not understand their rights or might fear being deported if they complain. By raising labor complaints, illegal workers could be vulnerable to a check of their immigration status.

"Day laborers are the most vulnerable because of the informal environment of their work," said Varela, who works for the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs in the District. "They have no contract or records. They may not know where they worked or who they worked for. They may be too scared to step into a courtroom or too worried about missing more work."

The legal situation of such immigrant laborers is often confusing and contradictory. Under federal law, it is illegal to hire a worker who does not have permission to be in the United States. In the past year, workplace raids by federal immigration agents across the Washington region have led to the arrests of several hundred illegal immigrants and to legal action against some employers.


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