San Jose spotlight: Silicon Valley advocates push for funding to combat wage theft

Victims of wage theft and workplace sexual assault and harassment are calling on the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors to fund partnerships with local nonprofit organizations to expose violators of workers’ rights in the South Bay.

The board on Tuesday will determine whether or not to allocate up to $1 million in county funds to organizations who fight for underpaid and underprivileged laborers in the region. During a Monday news conference, victims of wage theft and advocates urged the community to stand with them as they ask county lawmakers to approve the potential funding.

A Filipino immigrant worker, who asked only to be identified as “Nelly” for fear of retaliation, recalled her experience as an around-the-clock domestic worker earning $150 a week from 1995 to 2010. Nelly said her employer robbed her of wages and failed to pay what she was owed during her employment.

But she considers herself “one of the lucky ones.” She found refuge and legal assistance in the Pilipino Association for Workers and Immigrants, otherwise known as PAWIS — a word in Tagalog which translates to “sweat.”

“I don’t care about the money,” Nelly, who also said she was a victim of human trafficking, told San José Spotlight. “I care about my reputation.”

The news conference was called by organizers fighting to end the suffering of thousands of victims of wage-theft, sexual assault and abuse — many of whom are immigrants, minorities and, more specifically, women.

Magaly Mata, a San Jose restaurant worker, detailed her workplace abuse as a cook, busser and cashier who worked regularly from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., with no breaks, lunches or medical leave.

She worked every day of the week from 2015 to 2016 until she left her restaurant job because they “simply would not pay my wages,” Mata said through a Spanish translator. Mata said her employer often offered her a “loan” when she needed money — but failed to pay the loan or her wages.

She later won a case against her employer, but said she hasn’t seen “one cent, not even half.”

Advocates hope to challenge abusers by expanding partnerships between nonprofit organizations and the county’s Office of Labor Standards Enforcement, or OLSE — a new office activated by the Board of Supervisors last December.

“Although we have many good laws on the books, laws on the books aren’t self-enforcing,” said Ben Field, executive officer for the South Bay AFL-CIO Labor Council, who said Tuesday’s vote is of “crucial importance.”

Supervisor Cindy Chavez told San José Spotlight that increased funding to the OLSE will provide for hundreds of thousands of workers who face abuse and wage-theft in the county.

“There’s probably no time, at least in my adulthood, that I have seen more fear from working people than I have now,” Chavez said. “I believe this is something that [says] ‘justice delayed is justice denied.’ For mostly women to have been sexually assaulted, to have gone through the process to get an adjudicated judgement — for us not to act on it is appalling. We have to take action.”

Derecka Mehrens, executive director of Working Partnerships USA, said her organization, through its work, has found that “implementation was as important as passing the laws themselves.”

Ruth Silver Taube, a lawyer, human rights advocate and legal services chairwoman for the South Bay Coalition to End Human Trafficking, emphasized the importance of lawsuits in recent years which led to millions of dollars in settlements for hundreds of Bay Area workers victimized by wage theft. She mentioned cases like the workers of Yank Sing, a San Francisco restaurant company who in 2014 paid $4 million in backpay and benefits to 280 of its workers.

She said Santa Clara County is in “dire need” of increased attention and funding on workplace abuses and wage-theft.

“The state agencies and federal agencies are drowning, and cannot do it themselves,” she said. “Tomorrow, the county has the chance to double the funding for community outreach, expand the scope of the OLSE to cover sexual harassment, sexual assault, labor trafficking and retaliation, in addition to wage theft, and protect more county residents.”

The Board of Supervisors will meet at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday at 70 W. Hedding Street in San Jose.

Contact Kyle Martin at [email protected] or follow him @Kyle_Martin35 on Twitter.