Santa Clara County makes major investment to fight wage theft

Santa Clara County officials on Tuesday voted to add an additional half million in funding to the Office of Labor Standards Enforcement, a move that was applauded by all across the political aisle.

Labor activists and former victims of wage theft, sexual harassment and human trafficking were among those in the crowd advocating for the funding, calling for greater enforcement on industries rife with these malpractices.

“In my eight years, this is one of the few times we’ve spent so much time on an item that was not controversial,” said Supervisor Mike Wasserman.

“I am supporting this motion absolutely as a right thing to do,” he added.

At least 29 advocates and victims stepped forward to voice their personal stories of wage theft, death threats, fear of cartels or retaliation from employers, sexual harassment, assault, and human trafficking.

The money will be used to expand the scope of enforcement through outreach programs and implementing resources such as an anonymous whistleblower and advice hotline, all designated to better educate workers that are vulnerable to mistreatment and abuse from employers. Additionally, the OLSE hopes to forge better partnerships with local nonprofits to challenge wrongdoers.

“There’s a desperate need for a local agency that enforces judgements and final administrative decisions in wage and hour, discrimination, harassment, human trafficking and retaliation cases,” said Ruth Silver Taube, the legal services chairwoman for the South Bay Coalition to End Human Trafficking.

The overwhelming support for the funding was evident. Residents filled the room and stood in solidarity with former victims who told their stories. Many wore neon pink stickers that read “support workers.”

“I want to emphasize that human trafficking is very real in our city, and what you decide here is very valuable to our community,” said Margaret Abe-Koga, vice mayor of Mountain View.

Several advocates expressed the need to protect women, minorities, immigrants and the LGBTQ community — all predominant victims of wage theft and workplace abuse. Some warned how the lack of enforcement could lead to more cases like Silvery Towers, the project site where a subcontractor was exposed for putting workers through slave-like conditions.

“These are members of our community being abused,” said Supervisor Cindy Chavez. “We have to become much more assertive and strategic in our approach. We knew it was under reported and a big problem in areas we didn’t expect. This gives us an opportunity to create a structure for outreach. Over 40 percent of our community is foreign born — we cannot do this without enforcement.”

The vote passed unanimously and was met with applause from the crowd. Outside, supporters cheered, took photos and celebrated the approval.

“Today is a great day for workers in Santa Clara,” said deputy county executive David Campos. “This county has the largest number of reported cases of wage theft and abuses. The need for funding and action from the board on this issue sends a clear message that we are serious about combatting wage theft.”

Contact Nadia Lopez at nadiia_77@yahoo.com or follow @n_llopez on Twitter.

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