In a Wednesday Houston City Council vote, the country’s fourth largest city became the latest to crack down on “wage theft” – the crime of not paying your workers the wages they’re legally owed. It’s a crime that advocates have long charged often goes unpunished.
“It’s very significant …” said Kim Bobo, the author of the 2008 book "Wage Theft in America: Why Millions of Americans Are Not Getting Paid – And What We Can Do About It," which played a key role in popularizing the term. “If you can win it in Houston, you can win it in Atlanta or Dallas.” She told Salon the victory shows that wage theft “is not just something that people in those cities like Chicago and New York and San Francisco care about. This is something that’s of wide concern in cities throughout the South.”
The ordinance creates new avenues for victims of wage theft to bring forth claims, and for perpetrators to be denied city contracts, permits and licenses. Originally scheduled for a Nov. 13 vote, it was held for a week and passed unanimously Wednesday. Fe Y Justicia Worker Center executive director Laura Perez-Boston, whose group spearheaded a coalition of faith and labor groups backing the ordinance, last week told me she expected “different versions of this around the country,” amid “an uptick in wage theft around the country.” In a statement following the vote, Working America, the AFL-CIO’s affiliate for non-union workers, hailed the ordinance’s passage as the product of thousands of door-to-door conversations. The Northwest Houston Chamber of Commerce declined to comment.
Recent years have seen comparatively tough wage theft laws passed in jurisdictions including Chicago, Miami-Dade County and New York State, and a right-wing pushback aiming to preempt such bills with state laws. Bobo, the longtime director of Interfaith Worker Justice, chalked up the cause’s progress to a battery of factors: an economic crisis that leaves people “desperate to find solutions”; “really good organizing” by a range of advocates; and the broad, intuitive support for the principle that “if you work you should get paid, and you should get paid according to the law, and the law should be enforced.” Bobo noted that unions have increasingly taken up tracking and exposing wage theft as an aspect of broader campaigns like the past year's fast food organizing, and argued that federal neglect makes local legislation and activism urgent. “Everybody’s so happy that the wage and hour enforcement division went from 750 to 1000” federal employees, said Bobo, “but that’s just pitiful.”
Going forward, Bobo told Salon, activists would need to improve their outreach to private attorneys who could take up wage theft cases, and their engagement of businesses that comply with law and are undercut by wage law violators. “The business community on its own is doing nothing in this area …” she charged. “You got an ‘Ethical Business’ conference, and they don’t talk about wages.”