Employer John Najera, of El Paso company Sun-City Roofing, was indicted and charged with criminal wage theft last Thursday, the Texas Observer reported.  This specific type of case is the first of its kind to occur in El Paso and Austin is the only other city in Texas to see this type of case, according to the Texas Observer.

Najera allegedly pocketed over $2,000 that was supposed to go to worker Esteban Rangel.  “John Najera promised to pay me over $2,000 to replace a roof,” said Rangel according to a press release from the Labor Justice Committee and Paso del Norte Civil Rights Project.  A statistic released by the Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP) indicates that one in eight workers do not receive their promised pay.   Although this is El Paso’s first official case of criminal wage theft, employers stealing from already underpaid employees as one in five workers are illegally paid below minimum wage, has plagued the city for years.

 It wasn’t until 2011 when El Paso city officials passed a bill that aggressively put wage thieves in the crosshairs.  The Worker’s Defense Project (WDP), founded in 2002, succeeded in pressing Texas leaders to pass Senate Bill 1024.  Before SB 1024, there was a loophole in Texas law that allowed employers to slip prosecution should they steal their workers’ pay.  Employers would often resort to intimidation tactics to keep workers from coming forward about their severe mistreatment; threatening termination, notifying immigration authorities in cases of undocumented workers, lawsuits, etc.                             

One such example is Mexican immigrant Diego Gala, whom The New York Times reported on weeks before SB 1024 was passed.  “I couldn’t say nothing because I did not have papers,” NYT quoted Gala.  “So he (Gala’s employer) was like, ‘If you say something, you can just get deported.  I can call immigration on you, or you can get fired.”

Rangel heralds the indictment on Sub-City Roofing saying in the press release “this arrest shows him (Najera), and all El Paso employers, that there are serious consequences to stealing from your workers.”

Workers advocate groups like the TCRP and WDP, despite reporting troubles with getting police to enforce wage theft laws and attorneys to prosecute wage thieves, remain steadfast in their pursuit of fair treatment of workers, national and undocumented alike.  Incidents like these are proof-positive that companies like the ones that employed Diego Gala and Sun-City Roofing are criminals and not only violate securities and labor issues, but they also violate decent human rights, to which all are entitled.

Joshua de Leon is a writer and researcher with Ring of Fire.