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Durham Immigrant Workers Win Back Thousands in Unpaid Wages

Some Durham workers hold paychecks owed to them for work they completed nearly one year ago. (Siembra NC)
Some Durham workers hold paychecks owed to them for work they completed nearly one year ago. (Siembra NC)
January 8, 2020

DURHAM, N.C. -- A group of largely undocumented immigrant workers in the Triangle has successfully pressured a local employer to compensate the workers for unpaid wages. Workers'-rights advocates say the win highlights the state Department of Labor's unwillingness to investigate wage-theft claims involving immigrants, especially when the work was agreed upon by verbal contract.

Andrew Willis Garcés, director of the group Siembra North Carolina, said the workers were hired to clean up construction sites but never received payment. He said the practice is more common than many people think.

"They often feel very intimidated by the employer," he said, "and the employer often says, you know, 'If you complain, if you do anything, I'll call ICE,' which is illegal."

Twenty former employees of the Durham construction cleanup company Homehitters Inc. received more than $13,000 for work they did last February and March.

A 2017 report estimated that more than $300 million in wages are unpaid each year to North Carolina workers. Garcés said cities across the country have begun to indict employers who steal wages. Last year, he said, Colorado and Minnesota passed new laws reclassifying wage theft as a felony, subject to criminal penalties. Garcés said that isn't the case in North Carolina.

"The North Carolina Department of Labor is, compared to other departments of labor, much less willing to sue employers and to go after them, and to really take seriously the complaints filed by immigrant workers," he said.

Despite threats, intimidation and the national climate of hostility toward immigrants, Garcés said, undocumented workers in the state are standing up for their rights.

"I think it's both a story about the courage that immigrant workers have," he said. "That story is not out there very much; we mostly see immigrant workers as being afraid, as opposed to very courageous."

The victory comes two months after a group of Greensboro immigrants working as cleaners successfully won repayment of wages stolen last summer.

The 2017 report is online at epi.org.

Nadia Ramlagan, Public News Service - NC