New legislation means a fair break for low-wage workers

Listen to the audio story:


Blanca Moran’s eyes filled with tears. It was hard to look back on her years as a janitor with the cleaning company KBM. She spoke through a translator.

“She worked from 7 p.m to 6 a.m. in the morning. She didn’t get any rest breaks, no lunch period, she actually became sick with anemia because she didn’t have a time to eat.”

Today, Moran joined other janitors, taxi drivers, car washers and day laborers on the steps of City Hall to stand up for low-wage workers who are not getting paid enough for their work. Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles report 654,000 low-wage workers lose more than $26 million each week in Los Angeles through unfair labor practices.

Businesses guilty of worker exploitation are not just hurting poor families, said UCLA’s Kent Wong.

“It means that they’re getting an unfair advantage over other businesses that are doing the right thing and are honoring labor laws and paying their workers a living wage,” Wong added.

Hope for workers comes in the form of a city council ordinance that is being drafted now and is expected to pass early next year. The ordinance would allow laborers to report abuse to police and the city attorney and would make it a crime to cheat workers.

Councilmember Richard Alarcon is championing the new regulation.

“It’s not okay to cheat people out of their wages, it’s just like stealing,” Alarcon said.

In a city with a high foreign population, it is easier to get away with abuse because immigrants do not always know their rights. Car washes in particular have a bad track record in this city, said organizer Isabel Rojas.

“People are told to show up like at 8 in the morning, and they don’t start getting paid until the first cars roll in, so sometimes that means that they don’t get clocked in until like 11 or 12,” Rojas said. “On days that they get sent home early because there’s no work, they don’t get paid for that waiting time.”

The Clean Car Wash Campaign has helped workers take matters into their own hands. At the Wilshire Car Wash, workers were fired for fighting for better treatment, but with the campaign’s help, they got their jobs back.

Even before the new ordinance becomes a law, Alarcon and labor groups are urging businesses to start playing fair on their own. Stealing wages increases levels of poverty and in the end hurts us all, Alarcon said.