• Katlyn Roberts

Call Wage Theft What It Is: Part-Time Slavery

The history behind America’s billion-dollar wage theft problem and how to fight it.

A Black miner in the northern Sierra foothills in 1852. Photo via California State Library.

Hardly any of the bus drivers at the tour companies I worked for in the early 2010’s lived on the San Francisco side of the Bay. Most of them were Black, Latinx-American, or Chinese-American and they drove in from Oakland or as far away as Vallejo… They’d leave the house before the sun came up to beat the bridge traffic. If they made it to the bus yards in the Dogpatch with any time to spare, they’d catch some Z’s in their car. They’d probably gotten home at around 9 or 10pm the night before, so if they had families, a side-hustle, or just needed a little downtime when they got home, they’d get less than five hours of sleep on a nightly basis.

These drivers weren’t being paid for their overtime hours. They weren’t getting their breaks if there was traffic (and there was always traffic), they didn’t get vacation days or sick days. These guys, and the occasional woman who didn’t stick around very long due to the rampant sexual harassment from management, were often driving twelve hours a day, six or seven days a week — not including their commute. They were paid for eight of those.

A majority of us tour guides were white and we were paid for our overtime. According to management, this made us “expensive” and “without the right to complain”. The gaslighting is so clear now, as is the underlying white/Black reality under the tour guide/driver cover.

We were supposed to give half of our tips to the drivers at the end of the day, but I knew several of my fellow guides were stiffing them. I knew because the drivers always complained about it and because the woman who trained me whispered to me behind my coworker’s back that I should only give him what I thought he “deserved”. For the record, I never once stiffed anyone. But I also never confronted the guides who did.

These days, the racist history of California has been running around and around in my head like busses on a city loop. I’ve been imagining a different kind of tour that isn’t for the tourists. This one would be for us — the tour guides and the drivers. To understand how we got here and how to get the hell off this bus.

And with two weeks to go before the election, I want to tell a story about a country that’s struggled to evolve, that’s never been great. I think it’s important to highlight moments where we could have made better choices but didn’t — and how to make better choices in the future.

People falsely assume that slavery was never a thing in California.

Before the Bay Area was part of the Unites States, Spanish conquistadors came looking for gold. Missionaries came looking for victims. Together, they murdered, raped, enslaved, and forced Christian binary genders upon the people of the Ohlone, Miwok, and countless other tribes.

In 1849, white U.S. businessmen found gold up in them thar hills, kept it a secret, bought California for a steal from a recently independent Mexico, and announced their find the very next day like, “Wow! How fortunate is this?”

Within the next several years, even more Indigenous people, and Mexican-Americans who’d lived on the land for generations, were violently run off before they could lay claim to any gold.

Modern wage theft is a thriving operation in America.

“The Economic Policy Foundation, a business-funded think tank, estimated that companies annually steal $19 billion in unpaid overtime. Labor lawyer colleagues suggest the number is much higher.” — Kim Bobo, Wage Theft In America: Why Millions of Americans Are Not Getting Paid-And What We Can Do About It

In a 2017 case, Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, the Supreme Court ruled that companies are allowed to require their employees to sign arbitration agreements — basically signing away their right to sue.

At the companies I worked for, if new drivers didn’t sign after a certain amount of time, they simply didn’t get scheduled anymore. The ambiguity of this loss of work made unemployment benefits difficult to apply for.

Suing and losing a job was made even harder when a driver had a criminal record, which is why the company specifically hired drivers who did. This served the dual purpose of making the company look like it was doing something charitable while ensuring that their employees wouldn’t be taken seriously if they attempted to get justice.

Drivers were stuck if they stayed and stuck if they left — a spider’s web woven with capitalism’s sticky fingers.

Samuel Brannan was a Mormon soldier who monopolized the manufacture of mining equipment just in time for the Gold Rush. Miners who’d been lured to SF with the promise of striking it rich made scraps compared to this guy.

Brannan established the very first newspaper in San Francisco, then went up to Napa and stole the sacred hot springs from a tribe that had been so devastated, we no longer know their original name (Wappo, their current name, is an anglicized version of the Spanish, “Guapo”).

The Calistoga hot springs are a popular tourist destination to this day. The Indian Springs Resort and Spa has a charming little bio on the Visit Calistoga! website where they call Brannan an “early promoter of the area”. This is a man who justified stealing the hot springs by perpetuating a rumor that the Wappo were cannibals.

When the Mormon church got wind of his success and asked for a cut of “the Lord’s money”, he told them, “I’ll give up the Lord’s money when [Brigham] sends me a receipt signed by the Lord, and no sooner.”

Wage theft isn't confined to the tourism industry. It’s one of the biggest existential crises facing the United States today. Various surveys have found that:

  • 60 percent of nursing homes stole workers’ wages.

  • 89 percent of nonmonitored garment factories in Los Angeles and 67 percent of nonmonitored garment factories in New York City stole workers’ wages.

  • 25 percent of tomato producers, 35 percent of lettuce producers, 51 percent of cucumber producers, 58 percent of onion producers, and 62 percent of garlic producers hiring farm workers stole workers’ wages.

  • 78 percent of restaurants in New Orleans stole workers’ wages.

  • Almost half of day laborers, who tend to focus on construction work, have had their wages stolen.

  • 100 percent of poultry plants steal workers’ wages.

The majority of these jobs are filled by people of color and immigrants, whose white employers are well-aware of how difficult it is for them to get hired elsewhere.

The Barbary Coast of San Francisco was named after the notorious Barbary Coast in Northern Africa, a not-so-subtle dog whistle to those who might long for the “bygone” eras of slavery and piracy.

Sailers and longshoremen quickly learned that they could make a slightly better living mining for gold or building railroads than they could by hauling cargo, so they abandoned ship and settled into town.

Wealthy suppliers didn’t stand for that.

They began hiring pub owners to drug and kidnap people. When a victim woke up, they’d be on a cargo ship, half-way out to Shanghai, forced to either work or drown. This is where the term “shanghaied” comes from.

Once they were back on land, those who could vote were forced to vote for their own captors in local elections.

This modern slavery practice wasn’t made a federal crime until 1915.

So what can be done about the fact that the U.S. has taken 400 years to evolve from full-time slavery to part-time slavery?

(To read the rest of this article, check it out where it was originally published on Medium.)

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