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“They Steal Our Work”: Wage Theft and the Criminalization of Immigrant Day Laborers in Colorado, USA


Latino immigrant day laborers are among the most vulnerable populations in the USA, frequently subject to work-related abuses such as wage theft in violation of federal and state labor laws. Despite legal reforms to facilitate wage recovery for low-wage workers and to recognize wage theft as a crime, this article draws on over two years of community-based research to show how day laborers face challenges mobilizing their legal rights and holding employers accountable for the crimes they suffer owing to their own criminalization and devaluation in US society. Contributing to harms-based approaches in critical criminology, it explores how individual legal remedies or criminal justice responses can risk obscuring the ways that wage theft is embedded along a continuum of legal and illegal exploitative labor practices that are normalized and maintained by the broader degradation of work and the criminalization of immigration.

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  1. All names are pseudonyms to protect identities. IRB approval was obtained for qualitative interviews under protocol 684443 on January 20, 2015, and the survey under protocol 945425 on September 9, 2016.

  2. Gleeson (2016) delves into obstacles low-wage workers face who do come forward, but does not focus on (but recognizes the barriers) the majority who never pursue claims.

  3. The International Labor Organization offers its own definition of forced labor, which stresses “involuntariness and penalty or menace of a penalty,” but also puts more emphasis on victims’ assessments of their experiences (Zhang 2012: pp. 473–474).

  4. In total, 170 interviews were conducted. Graduate student interviewers were trained and were either accompanied by the author or a lead graduate research assistant in the field. Some interviews were recorded and transcribed while others were fleshed out from detailed notes before being transferred to Dedoose coding software to identify and organize themes and patterns. The data was coded in Dedoose by a lead graduate research assistant and the author, and then refined as patterns emerged; new questions were incorporated into interviews in iterative fashion. The qualitative research prioritized rapport and depth over consistency by allowing day laborers to tell their stories as they waited for work. This approach resulted in some of the risks associated with a convenience sample, but the subsequent survey provided the rigor and sampling and interviewer controls necessary to assess patterns that emerged during the qualitative fieldwork.

  5. Randall Kuhn analyzed and weighted the survey data.

  6. El Centro also runs an employment program; workers can enter a daily lottery system to seek work from employers that are registered with the center to improve accountability.

  7. This may encompass legal and illegal forms including job loss, immigration threats, and discrimination, blacklisting in the labor market, cutting or changing hours, or repercussions for one’s social networks (Gleeson 2016).

  8. Quoted in Castenson et al. 2015

  9. The Division may also waive or significantly reduce fines and penalties if employers pay within 14 days.

  10. Quoted in Brokob et al. 2015


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I would like to thank Randall Kuhn for survey analysis and assistance, students at the University of Denver who assisted in data collection and analysis (below), and research collaboration from Daniel Olmos and Sarah Horton. The research would not have been possible without close collaboration with El Centro Humanitario, Towards Justice, The Colorado Wage Theft Task Force, and the Direct Action Team. Gabriella Sánchez also provided useful guidance on the manuscript and Matthew Fritz-Mauer offered insightful suggestions on the revision. I would also like to thank Abbey Vogel for her editorial assistance and continued work alongside day laborers pursuing justice. I would like to thank the following students for contributing to the research that informed the article: Research Assistants: Camden Bowman, Kendra Allen, Amy Czulada, Morgan Brokob, Max Spiro, and Jordyn Dinwiddie. Surveyors: Diego Bleifuss-Prados, Jazmin Bustillos, Eloy Chávez, Claudia Castillo, David Feuerbach, Estefan Hernández-Escoto, Blake Linehan, Andrea Mártires-Abelenda, Yessenia Prodero, and Cristal Torres. Additional qualitative interviews directly informing this paper were conducted by: Laurel Hayden, Sarah May, Elayna McCall, Kate Castenson, Kara Napolitano, Sarah Davis, Christina Ibanez, and Stacy Shomo.


This study received funding from the Labor Research and Action Network, Michael and Alice Kuhn Foundation, University of Denver Public Good Grant, University of Denver IRISE Grant, and Korbel Faculty Research Fund.

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Correspondence to Rebecca B. Galemba.

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Galemba, R.B. “They Steal Our Work”: Wage Theft and the Criminalization of Immigrant Day Laborers in Colorado, USA. Eur J Crim Policy Res 27, 91–112 (2021).

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  • Criminalization
  • Labor
  • Wage theft
  • Immigration
  • USA