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SHADOW WORKFORCE: Immigrants particularly vulnerable to wage theft

A crane looms over Milwaukee near the Potawatomi Hotel and Casino in August 2013. Officials in both Wisconsin and Minnesota have been trying in recent years to crack down on wage theft and worker misclassification, abuses to which immigrants are particularly susceptible.

A crane looms over Milwaukee near the Potawatomi Hotel and Casino in August 2013. Officials in both Wisconsin and Minnesota have been trying in recent years to crack down on wage theft and worker misclassification, abuses to which immigrants are particularly susceptible.

Life hasn’t always been easy for Hilaro Flores.

A native of Mexico, the immigrant construction worker now living just over Wisconsin’s border, in Minnesota, lost his mother when he was a young child. His father couldn’t take care of Hilaro and his four siblings, so the children were sent off to live in different homes.

“They used to send me (to be with) my grandmother, but I missed my mom so much that I used to run to my empty house and look for my mom,” Flores said as he wiped away tears.

Flores’ adult years brought difficulties of a different sort. Struggling to make a go of it in the food business in Mexico, he came to the U.S. in 2002. His plan? Work hard, save money and go on from there to bigger and better things.

Undaunted by cold weather, Flores came to the northern U.S., where the construction industry beckoned with the promise of good wages. But the road took a wrong turn for the 46-year-old after he crossed paths with a labor broker.

Through an acquaintance, Flores met a man who quickly found him work on construction jobs. Paid in cash and living in squalor with other immigrants, Flores was ushered into a system where workers struggled with abuse, unsafe conditions, threats of violence, and 12-hour days, including weekends, with no overtime.

Flores estimates he was cheated out of $40,000 in the past three years, a figure that takes into account unpaid overtime and stolen wages. Now he’s out of work and looking for a new start. Flores said he lost his job on a Twin Cities construction project because he complained about not getting paid.

“We came with a big dream to be better in the U.S., but sometimes it’s worse than our own country,” Flores, who has a 9-year-old daughter.

As harrowing as his story is, Flores is one of the luckier ones. Many other Minnesota workers have told similar stories of unpaid wages, unsafe working and living conditions, and threats at the hands of unscrupulous brokers.

Minnesota lawmakers took note last spring when they passed a wage-theft bill that increased funding for enforcement and stiffened the penalties for labor trafficking.

Yet, even with there now being widespread recognition that there’s cause for concern, experts say it’s hard to tell exactly how prevalent wage theft and worker exploitation are in the industry. Oftentimes, workers who are being abused are being paid under the table and are living in the shadows. Because many are here illegally, they are afraid to speak up.

“You are basically asking: How much crime is there?” said Aaron Sojourner, a labor expert with the University of Minnesota.

“Criminals don’t report to the government or official state agencies when they commit their crime. In fact, they work very hard to hide it, so it’s not an easy thing to measure,” he said. “We do surveys of the general population and we ask them, ‘Have you been victim of a crime during this year? Has this happened to you?’

“In these cases it’s much harder, because we don’t do those kinds of surveys systematically. We don’t go out and ask the population about health and safety violations. We don’t ask them about wage theft systematically,” Sojourner said.

Jessica Looman, executive director of the Minnesota State Building and Construction Trades Council, agreed.

“You are trying to define ‘big,’” said Looman, a former Minnesota Department of Commerce commissioner. “The truth is every exploited worker is a big problem. If we have a system that allows a worker to be exploited, it is a big problem.”

Most people seldom have reason to think about wage theft and worker exploitation. Only recently have these abuses come to be perceived as matters of pressing concern, Looman said.

“The issues we are seeing — that are so heartbreaking and detrimental to our communities and our economy — are people who are actually exploiting workers and have a business model of, ‘Try to catch me as I steal money from workers, as I abuse workers, as I don’t provide them with workplace safety, I don’t provide insurance, workers comp. I am going to make as much money as I can on the backs of these workers and there is nothing you can do to stop me.’

“We are just trying to say, ‘That is not OK in Minnesota.’”

Flores, for his part, expected more from Minnesota.

Wearing a neat, button-downed shirt and sitting ramrod straight during an hourlong interview, Flores told his story at the headquarters of the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters in St. Paul.

Flores said the labor broker he worked for set him up with jobs at various construction sites in the Twin Cities.

A recurring concern was money. Cash payments from the broker fell far short of what Flores had rightfully earned, Flores said. Other workers were in the same predicament. Flores estimates the broker had about 300 people in his stable of workers.

More often than not, immigrant workers are afraid to speak up and request what is rightfully theirs for fear of retaliation, he said.

“When you intimidate a guy, and threaten a guy with hitting him or killing him or doing something bad to him or his family, they just leave and never claim what he owed them for money. That is how he takes advantage of the workers,” Flores said.

Since losing his construction job, Flores has been trying to collect unpaid wages. He can’t afford an attorney and has instead turned to the carpenters union for hep, he said.

Even so, the construction industry, which desperately needs workers, has left a bitter taste in his mouth. Perhaps, he says, a return to the food business — and more reasonable working hours and conditions — is in his future.

“My idea now is to maybe try to collect the money that they owe me and start my own business making food, because I am pretty good at that,” Flores said. “I want to spend more time with my daughter.”

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