Iowa Immigrant workers fight wage theft with the help of ILJ affiliate Iowa Migrant Movement for Justice.
“I don’t even care so much what happens to me. I just want to make sure this doesn’t keep happening to others.”
—Wage theft victim & Iowa MMJ client
Each year, employers steal wages from one in seven Iowan workers; that equals 250,000 Iowans robbed of over $900 million in stolen wages every year. Immigrants, because of language barriers, unfamiliarity with U.S. laws, and immigration status, make up a large percentage of these victims. And some of them will find their way to Iowa Migrant Movement for Justice (Iowa MMJ).
“We are finding ways to merge our legal immigration work with our efforts to help community members impacted by wage theft,” says Community Organizer Alejandro Murgia-Ortiz. “It’s part of our commitment to workers’ rights and immigrant justice.”
Under new federal guidelines announced earlier this month, undocumented immigrants exploited in the workplace, or involved in labor investigations, can apply for deportation relief for a period of two years, as well as an accompanying work permit. In some cases—those involving, for example, extortion, obstruction, or witness tampering—victims may even be eligible for a U Visa, if they provide assistance to law enforcement or government officials in the investigation or prosecution of these crimes.
Potential clients who need help with a wage theft case first discuss the particulars of their situation with Alejandro in a one-on-one meeting to help ensure their comfort and privacy. Alejandro has a list of questions—the amount of money missing, the job site, who hired them, whether multiple people were involved, and if the employee has some sort of written agreement with the employer.
Iowa MMJ can then put pressure on the employers—through phone calls, letters, and site visits—to recoup stolen wages.
“Some of these employers have been doing this for years without fear of repercussions,” explains Alejandro. “They can block phone calls, they can hide, they can even hire their own lawyers. But our direct actions can definitely scare them—I had one guy almost shaking on the phone—and that can lead to good results.”
Iowa MMJ also collaborates with state and federal labor agencies, other allied organizations, and the Carpenters’ Union. Most of the workers experiencing wage theft are in construction.
“The types of employers who commit wage theft are a mix,” says Alejandro. “There are individuals who hired someone to work on their house and didn’t pay them. Others are contractors working for someone else. With some of the larger jobs in the area—for example, the county hospital currently being built—there will be tiers and tiers of contractors and sub-contractors and sub-sub contractors. The workers themselves can be completely disconnected from the builder and the project.”
Wage theft victims learn about Iowa MMJ’s efforts through their attorneys, word of mouth, and community events. Iowa MMJ also publicizes its work through an education campaign on social media and radio spots on Hispanic channels.
“For some of these folks, it will be the first time this happened to them. For others, it happens a lot,” says Alejandro. “People don’t know where to go to get help. Or they feel the resources available aren’t meant for them or won’t work for them.”
The team at Iowa MMJ—along with their committed partners—aim to change that narrative.
What can you do to help fight wage theft? Alejandro has a few suggestions:
- If you are hiring a contractor, consult with local unions to see which contractors to avoid.
- Encourage city officials to address the needs of migrant workers excluded from services and programs.
- On the legislative front, call on your representatives to work toward progressive labor legislation that affords all workers the same rights and protections, regardless of immigration status.
For further information:
Watch Alejandro and Iowa MMJ members discuss the issue of wage theft and immigrants in this “First Friday” webinar