No May Day party for day laborers

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Power tools, light fixtures, house paint, lumber, immigration raids. You can find it all at Home Depot. While everyone else was celebrating the May Day holiday of international solidarity and workers’ rights, a group of undocumented workers were either sitting in jail waiting to hear if they’d be permitted to stay in the United States or they’d already been deported.

Last month, law enforcement officials including the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department and the federal Immigration and Control Enforcement bureau arrested several workers waiting for jobs in front of the Home Depot location on Ice House Terrace in Fremont.

“They detained many of us, leaving only a couple of us behind. From what we know, most of them were deported,” one worker told KCBS April 29.

Just before the holiday, immigration activists from La Raza Centro Legal, the Living Wage Coalition and other groups held a press conference to denounce the raids.

“These are human beings we’re talking about, workers who were simply trying to work and earn a living,” a La Raza organizer said in a prepared statement. “We’re going to find out what happened to them.”

NBC 11 reported that several weeks ago Home Depot called the Fremont Police Department complaining about workers loitering in front of the store and 13 people were eventually taken to the Santa Rita Jail because they could not be properly identified.

Life isn’t easy for day laborers these days despite all the talk about San Francisco being a sanctuary city. Matt Smith at the Weekly reported awhile back that even though groups like La Raza are lately succeeding in organizing day laborers and domestic workers to defend their own rights, they’re still easy targets for shady contractors who frequently refuse to pay after the work is done or do little to ensure a workplace free of serious hazards.

In March of 2007, a contractor named Mike Abozaid was arrested in the Mission District for allegedly cumulatively stiffing at least eight workers out of thousands of dollars eventually being charged with several counts of grand theft and felony fraud plus one count of violating the state's labor code, all to which he pled not guilty.

For months, La Raza says, Abozaid stole work for his contracting business without shame, at least until jail seemed like a real possibility. Only now are advocates for low-wage laborers producing a clearer picture of just how often contractors and other employers like Abozaid puportedly disappear at the end of the workday without paying a dime.

Two days before Abozaid’s long-awaited preliminary hearing last year, he fled to Egypt to avoid prosecution. Such arrests are extremely rare, but we’ve reviewed dozens of past cases from San Francisco alone filed with the California Department of Labor Standards Enforcement outlining allegations that workers were stiffed out of cash wages by their bosses. (We were working on a story similar to Smith’s but the bastard beat us to it.)

California labor law clearly protects all workers in the state, documented or not, and labor officials insist their not in the business of enforcing immigration law. But for undocumented workers, fearing anyone with an official government title is reasonable. Not to mention, well-meaning bureaucrats don’t spend a lot of time at small construction sites or private homes or businesses where much of the work of day laborers and domestic workers is done.

It can take the DLSE months to process and investigate a claim, not unlike the slow pace of a traditional civil suit, but much about day labor is haphazard in its organization meaning the terms are commonly agreed to orally and there isn’t always a clear paper trail to confirm the worker’s claim. Lawyers for La Raza double as private investigators using license plate numbers and business registration documents to track shady and elusive bosses when they can.

And no case is filed at all unless the worker is fearless and frustrated enough over the lost wages and refused bathroom and lunch breaks to approach an organization like La Raza for help. Undocumented workers are far less likely to ask law enforcement for help if turning to the government to obtain unpaid wages could result in their own deportation.

Now they may be less likely to turn to Home Depot parking lots for work, too.

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