If you steal $600 worth of merchandise, the police will probably come after you. But if your employer steals $600 of your wages, you are likely to never see that money again.
And chances are high that you have experienced wage theft yourself, whether you work a 9-to-5 job or are an independent contractor. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that wage theft is costing US workers $50 billion a year. And even though New York has one of the strongest wage theft protection laws on the books, it is actually very difficult to enforce those laws in practice. According to a 2015 report from the Center for Popular Democracy, "2.1 million New Yorkers are victims of wage theft annually and are cheated out of cumulative $3.2 billion in wages and benefits they are owed." A recent survey by the Freelancers Union found that 71 percent of freelancers have had difficulty getting paid and that the average loss per freelancer is approximately $6,000 a year.
One large group that is especially hard hit by seemingly endemic nonpayment issues is day laborers. This workforce is predominantly composed of immigrants who tend to work sporadically without written contracts. And women are especially vulnerable: "Not only do women day laborers earn significantly less than their male counterparts but they also tend to experience bigger challenges in providing legal evidence in cases of wage theft," Maria Figueroa, director of labor and policy research at the Industrial and Labor Relations School of Cornell University, told me in an email exchange.
This is why I was so surprised when I scrolled through the Facebook page of the Worker’s Justice Project (WJP), a Brooklyn-based organization that empowers low-wage immigrant workers. WJP had posted a series of photos, each one showing a small group of workers holding up dollar bills or checks. Like this one:
Again, won +$130 in back wages for housekeepers through worker power and negotiation. The employer thought that could...Posted by Workers Justice Project - Proyecto Justicia Laboral on Wednesday, October 28, 2015
I reached out to WJP and asked if I could document what tactics they were using to combat wage theft. Soon after, I met a woman named Maria Ligero — watch her story about fighting back above.