Rebecca Galemba: How employers steal from workers -- and get away with it

Recorded atMarch 20, 2021
Duration (min:sec)09:24
Video TypeTEDx Talk
Words per minute183.6 fast
Readability (FK)45.16 difficult
SpeakerRebecca Galemba

Official TED page for this talk


When you work, you expect to be paid for it. Except, for millions of Americans employed across a range of industries like restaurants and construction, that's not always the case. Anthropologist Rebecca Galemba explores the multibillion-dollar problem of wage theft and how employers get away with it, highlighting the changes needed for them to pay up -- and fairly.

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100:12 When you work, you expect to be paid for it.
200:15 You don't expect to be paid less than you were promised or worse, nothing at all.
300:20 But that's exactly what's happening to millions of Americans who work in a range of industries.
400:25 It's especially a problem in agriculture, construction, restaurants, garment factories, poultry plants, nursing homes, in day labor and among independent contractors.
500:37 It's called wage theft, and chances are that you or someone you know has experienced it.
600:42 Wage theft occurs when individuals do not receive their legally owed wages and benefits.
700:48 Wage theft can take many forms: Paying below the minimum wage, withholding earned benefits, overtime, breaks or tips, misclassifying employees as independent contractors and even outright non-payment.
801:02 The Economic Policy Institute estimates that workers are losing 50 billion dollars a year to wage theft, but most people haven't even heard of the problem.
901:10 If it's hard to picture 50 billion dollars, consider this.
1001:14 Yearly economic losses to auto theft, robbery and burglary combined come to much less at 14 billion a year.
1101:22 Wage theft impacts more than just the workers who don't get their wages.
1201:26 It lowers wages in those workplaces and across entire industries.
1301:30 Plus, it robs communities of tax dollars.
1401:32 And even more broadly, it rewards cheating, undermines competition and creates a race to the bottom that hurts us all.
1501:42 Although wage theft impacts many industries, my research focuses on one of the most vulnerable sectors, day laborers, most of whom are immigrants from Latin America who seek daily work for cash.
1601:52 You may have seen day laborers at a worker center, outside a home improvement store or on a street corner.
1701:59 On a typical morning at a street corner hiring site, trucks screech to a halt and employers yell out how many workers they need and the pay rate and workers rush to the passenger-side window.
1802:09 Day laborers may just have a couple of minutes to negotiate their wages, hours and working conditions, all in competition with other workers and frequently with limited English proficiency.
1902:21 This rapid pace of the hiring process, unstable work, lack of immigration status and working on one of the least regulated sectors of the economy makes day laborers particularly vulnerable to wage theft, as well as other forms of exploitation, harassment and victimization.
2002:40 Since 2015, my research has focused on immigrant day laborers' experiences with wage theft in Colorado.
2102:46 I've also trained teams of graduate students as field workers and taken them out to street corners and Denver's worker center El Centro Humanitario.
2202:55 In total, we interviewed 170 day laborers and conducted a follow-up survey of over 400.
2303:02 Day laborer Bernal's story demonstrates how wage theft happens.
2403:07 Bernal was recruited at a street corner hiring site in Denver, Colorado, by an employer who then drove him 70 miles away for a construction project.
2503:15 Bernal worked from nine in the morning until late at night.
2603:18 When the work was completed, his employer didn't pay him.
2703:22 What's more, he stranded him in the parking lot over an hour from home.
2803:27 The employer told him, "Tomorrow I'll come back and pay you, I didn't bring any money."
2903:31 When Bernal insisted on being paid, the employer relented and gave me a check.
3003:36 But when Bernal went to cash that check, it had no funds.
3103:40 So then he was stuck with a bounced check fee on top of his unpaid wages.
3203:45 Bernal's story shows the many ways employers try to cheat workers out of their wages.
3303:50 They strand them far from home.
3403:52 They promise to pay later.
3503:53 They claim they don't have the money to pay.
3603:56 Or they issue checks with insufficient funds.
3703:58 Employers often say that wage theft is an accident, but day laborers’ experiences show how it’s a patterned and intentional practice to benefit at worker's expense.
3804:09 Sadly, Bernal's story is not unique.
3904:12 My survey results found that 62 percent of day laborers had experienced wage theft and 19 percent just in the six months prior to being surveyed.
4004:21 When day laborers try to confront employers for their unpaid wages, they may stop answering the phone, change their numbers or even threaten the worker.
4104:29 Because day laborers work informally and off the books, some employers, they claim to have never hired the worker at all.
4204:36 Some employers vaguely or even directly threaten to call immigration when workers speak up or complain.
4304:43 This is illegal, but employers get away with it anyway.
4404:46 That's because retaliation protections are weak and immigrant day laborers don't tend to come forward because they don't trust the system to protect them.
4504:54 US wage and hour laws require employers to pay wages for all work completed, regardless of legal status.
4605:00 Otherwise, there's a perverse incentive to cheat.
4705:03 However, the labor rights enforcement system is under-resourced and largely depends on individuals to come to it to pursue cases.
4805:12 That's a big ask for anyone and especially for vulnerable populations like day laborers.
4905:17 Not only does it take a good amount of legal knowledge to even know where to begin, but there's also a steep opportunity cost.
5005:25 Day laborers worry about spending days, weeks, months, even years, chasing unpaid wages, when they could just be out working the next job.
5105:34 They also worry about retaliation.
5205:36 That's why many workers never file or give up their claims.
5305:40 As many workers said, they don't want to go around fighting.
5405:44 So wage theft continues because employers know they're likely to get away with it.
5505:48 That doesn't mean that day laborers do nothing to prevent wage theft or try to upgrade their working conditions.
5605:54 At street corners, day laborers try to organize a wage floor to prevent undercutting and warn workers of employers with bad reputations when they walk by.
5706:02 For example, they shout, "This one doesn't pay" to blacklist employers who mistreated workers in the past.
5806:08 Other strategies include only accepting cash, not cheques, and insisting on getting paid every day, rather than waiting for employers who promise to pay at the end of the week or even bimonthly.
5906:21 Still, day laborers recognize that due to lack of work and employer's relative power over them, that there's no guarantee.
6006:30 Only half of day laborers who had experienced wage theft did anything to recover their unpaid wages, including even asking their employer for the money they owed them.
6106:39 Just a third took the additional step of seeking assistance from others.
6206:43 As many workers told me and student researchers, there's nothing you can do.
6306:50 Every year, when I collaborate with students on this project, some students tell me that they realize that they too have experienced wage theft.
6407:00 They're in quite different positions than immigrant day laborers, but also work in industries that are prone to wage theft, such as childcare, restaurants, bars and in low-paying and unpaid internships.
6507:12 In fact, half a million Coloradans suffer wage theft every year.
6607:18 The nature of work is changing.
6707:20 We've seen it in the rise of freelancing, independent contracting, piece rate and part-time work and contingent work.
6807:26 Not only has there been a resurgence of day labor, but more jobs look increasingly a lot like day labor, even if that's not what we would call them.
6907:35 Of course, there's a lot of flexibility and competitiveness that comes from these new kinds of jobs.
7007:40 But there also can be risks when they're also increasingly characterized by low pay, no benefits, job insecurity, lack of employer responsibility and are primed for labor violations like wage theft.
7107:56 They may be further prone to labor practices that are quite harmful and humiliating, but perfectly legal.
7208:03 US labor laws are still based on relatively traditional definitions and relationships between employers and their employees.
7308:12 Work arrangements that increasingly carve workers out of employee status, not only lessen employer's responsibilities, but make it all the more challenging to hold them accountable for labor violations, as well as unsafe working conditions.
7408:28 Wage theft is not exceptional.
7508:30 It's just one more way we've undermined workers in the name of profit and flexibility.
7608:34 It's critical to update labor rights enforcement to better evolve towards the changing nature of work.
7708:40 But that's not enough.
7808:42 We also need to rethink and upgrade employment so that people's work can actually support their lives.
7908:50 And when we look for contractors to remodel our homes, look for childcare or eat out in restaurants, we need to ask more questions, not just about the quality of a job or a service, or even where the ingredients in our food come from, but also attuned to how workers are being paid and being treated.
8009:09 When we see rapid construction growth in our cities, we see signs of development and of progress.
8109:14 But we should also ask for whom and at what cost.
8209:20 The insecurity and risks of day labor should worry all of us, about the future of work.
8309:27 Unless we transform our approach to whose lives and labor matter.
8409:35 Thank you.