For many day laborers, getting cheated is practically an occupational hazard. In the rough and tumble world of the street corner shape-up, workers seeking an honest day’s pay often become targets of wage theft, as many of them, poor, undocumented and working off the books, are extremely vulnerable to labor abuse. But when Guatemalan construction worker José Ucelo tried to collect pay for the work he completed for a contractor in Anaheim, California, in 2012, his boss tried to screw him out of wages—and have him arrested.
Ucelo found the job outside of a local Home Depot, a site where many day laborers wait on line for work. He put in the agreed upon 10 hours, but at the end of the shift, Ucelo’s boss, Michael Tebb, tried to wriggle out of paying him by reporting him to local police for, ironically, theft. As expected, the charge was eventually dropped. However, Ucelo, who had no criminal record, got swept into Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody and was threatened with deportation.
The case is emblematic of the hardships that immigrant workers face as they struggle to earn a living in communities where federal immigration authorities collude with local police to scan the immigration status of people in custody—even the falsely accused. California’s recently enacted TRUST Act aims to prevent unjust ICE detentions by limiting the agency’s collaboration with local law enforcement. But for workers like Ucelo, every day at work is rife with risks. According to one survey of day laborers in New Jersey, wage theft is pervasive: About half of workers reported being underpaid or not paid at all at least once in the past year, and among those who had worked a full 40-hour week, more than 90 percent reported getting shorted on overtime pay. They also regularly experienced unsafe working conditions and sometimes even violent assault by employers.
The National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) has worked with the conscious cumbia outfit Los Jornaleros del Norte (The Day Laborers of the North) to set Ucelo’s story—which has been reported on in local media—to music. Their newly released song, “Ese güey no paga” (That Dude Don’t Pay), harkens back to the folk music of the early Chicano and Mexican migrant worker movements. The lyrics portray the struggles of laborers who fuel the low-wage construction workforce, but are repaid in degradation and imprisonment.
“Be careful day laborer women and men / don’t let them trick you!” The band warns.
The tune serves as a protest, public service announcement, and celebration of what a community can do when it mobilizes to defend its rights. Ucelo got a reprieve from the authorities, so he could remain in the country. And, as OC Weekly reports, he won his back wages and then some: he and his advocates scored a $10,000 conditional legal settlement in late 2012. Ucelo’s victory also comes alongside a slew of local legislation against wage theft, a basic step toward protecting day laborers against exploitation.
So workers, be careful, but don’t be fearful. Even when the boss won’t pay, speaking out and organizing your community does pay off.
To download the song, support Los Jornaleros, and learn more about wage theft issues, go to NDLON’s website.