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De-Normalizing Wage Theft in Denver, CO: A Qualitative Research and Legal Outreach Study

Day laborers wait for work in Denver.


Sep 2015



(Note: This blog introduces a series on wage theft in the Denver area based on the research of a team of graduate students at the University of Denver under the direction of Rebecca Galemba, PhD and Raja Raghunath, JD. This first entry comes from Professor Galemba, and subsequent entries will come from student researchers.)

by guest blogger Rebecca Galemba, PhD

While not necessarily human trafficking or forced labor, wage theft is a fundamental assault to human dignity, which carries grave individual, community, and transnational repercussions. Wage theft poses difficult questions in defining coercion and forced labor when migrant workers who speak up against mistreatment are unlawfully threatened or harassed into silence, which can be possible signs of human trafficking.

According to the Colorado Fiscal Institute, over half a million Coloradans suffer from wage theft annually. Wage theft includes the outright non-payment of wages, misclassification of employees to justify underpayment, the underpayment of wages, failure to pay overtime, improper deductions, and the improper use of tipped jobs. When workers are denied pay for work completed, they are not only dehumanized and demeaned, but the implications ripple through families and communities locally and across borders.

One Honduran laborer in the Denver area, who suffered an injury when a tree fell on him on the job is owed over $25,000 by his employer plus additional fines since his employer did not carry the requisite workman’s compensation. He has also suffered numerous instances of wage theft. Unable to locate the employer to make him pay, this man, his wife, and two young children were evicted from their apartment.

Day laborers, many of whom are from Mexico and Central America, wait at different street corners in Denver and Aurora each day hoping to obtain work. Verbal negotiations over wages, hours, and work are rapid as employers’ trucks screech to a halt, day laborers rush to the truck, and the employer chooses workers to jump into his vehicle. At the mercy of the employer, some day laborers have been left miles away on the highway when they protest work arrangements.

The National Employment Law Project’s Broken Laws is an extensive study on day labor in the three major US cities that documented the pervasiveness of wage theft at street corners. More than 2/3 of day laborers sampled had at least one wage-related violation in the week prior. One Denver day laborer related the risk they all run while waiting for work at the street corner, “Out of the ten of us waiting here, three of us may not be paid today.” Workers are told they will be paid “tomorrow,” or told to “wash their hands” while an employer cashes a check. The employer then disappears along with any chances of pay.

In the spring of 2015, 22 graduate students at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies began an ethnographic study of wage theft experienced by Latino day laborers in Denver, Colorado as part of Professor Rebecca Galemba’s Qualitative Research Methodologies course. They pursued this work under a larger investigation being conducted by Professors Galemba from the Korbel School and Raja Raghunath, from the Sturm College of Law. The project pairs qualitative research with legal services and outreach to investigate wage theft and obstacles to redress. El Centro Humanitario is an active partner in the project. In the spirit of participatory action research and engaged ethnography, the researchers collaborate with the community to define the scope of the study, analyze results, and devise plans for dissemination and action.

The goal is to use research to empower the community and local organizations to critically analyze wage theft, uncover the social factors that make day laborers vulnerable, and devise strategies to combat exploitation. Since wage theft often occurs in the shadows of informal work arrangements, the beginning phases of this ongoing research are based on interviews and interactions, allowing research participants to help shape the questions to ask, as well as the direction of the research.

Students divided into four groups to examine the views and experiences of day laborers, employers, allied non-profits and churches, and relevant lawyers and legal agencies. To engage stakeholders in advocating for the day laborer population, the groups also sought to understand what social and legal services were available, what support networks existed, and how organizations may or may not coordinate. In addition to more robust labor laws and immigrant reform, combating wage theft will require a collaborative social effort in order to shift social views so that communities de-normalize wage theft and take a stand against it.

Human trafficking discourse all too often focuses on the “sexier” forms of exploitation while omitting the kinds of exploitation that are ingrained in our daily forms of consumption. It is uncomfortable to think about the exploitative conditions that produce cheap clothing, landscape work, health or childcare, and produce many in America enjoy.

While Denver’s current housing boom may be good for the local economy, some of it is being built on the backs of exploited laborers. Perhaps society turns a blind eye to such routinized forms of structural violence to enjoy artificially low prices and/or high profits for luxuries and even basic commodities that are subsidized by low-wage workers whose exploitation is justified by their race, class, and increasingly legal status. Legal status’ main function has not been to deter undocumented migration, but rather to guarantee and justify the expansion of a vulnerable and exploitable labor force. While some day laborers express a sense of hopelessness, others devise social and community strategies to get by, fight back, and assert their dignity. The student groups’ following blog posts will elaborate on their group efforts in building this research agenda.

Photo Credit: Rebecca Galemba

Rebecca Galemba is a Lecturer at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies. She is currently working on a research project on wage theft experienced by Latino day laborers in the Denver construction industry.

This study has received funds from a CCESL Public Good Grant, an IRISE Grant, and a Korbel Latin American Center Grant from the University of Denver. A Labor Research and Action Network grant also provided financial support to this project.

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3 Responses to “De-Normalizing Wage Theft in Denver, CO: A Qualitative Research and Legal Outreach Study”

  1. Fighting Wage Theft Through Strengths-based Collaboration | Blog – Anti Human Trafficking Mission

    […] the direction of Rebecca Galemba, PhD and Raja Raghunath, JD.   The prevoius posts can be found here and […]

  2. Fighting Wage Theft Through Strengths-based Collaboration | Human Trafficking Center

    […] the direction of Rebecca Galemba, PhD and Raja Raghunath, JD.   The prevoius posts can be found here and […]

  3. Legal Barriers to Fighting Wage Theft | Human Trafficking Center

    […] (Note: This blog is the second in a series on wage theft in the Denver area based on the research of a team of graduate students at the University of Denver under the direction of Rebecca Galemba, PhD and Raja Raghunath, JD.   The prevoius post can be found here.) […]

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