Wage Theft Whistleblower Faces Deportation After Exposing Federally-Contracted Food Court Fiends

In early July, a one-day strike organized by the SEIU’s Good Jobs Nation took place at the Ronald Reagan Building to protest wage theft by employers contracted through the federal government. Antonio Vanegas was one of the speakers that day. He had earned $6.50 an hour with no overtime working at the Quick Pita in the building’s food court. A week earlier he had testified in front of the Congressional Progressive Caucus:

I work at Quick Pita in the food court of the Ronald Reagan Building. I work nearly 12 hours every day serving lunch to the thousands of people who work in the building. But I am not here to tell you how hard I work. I am here to tell you that my employer does not follow the law.

But doing the right thing — rather, trying to get Quick Pita and other unscrupulous employers to do the right thing — has backfired on Vanegas as he may face deportation to his home country of Guatemala. He was detained for four days after he spoke out and now has a deportation hearing beginning in August. The 26-year-old told The Huffington Post:

This country is a country of laws. Regardless of my status, I should have some protections based on the labor laws that have been violated.

Upon returning to work after speaking out, Vanegas was stopped by the Department of Homeland Security.  

According to Vanegas, when he showed up for work a few days later he was stopped by an officer with the Federal Protective Service, a security police force of the Department of Homeland Security. There was a problem with his work badge, Vanegas said he was told, even though he’d used the same badge for years. Vanegas was then turned over to immigration officials and spent four days in detention before being released, he said. His hearing is slated for next month.

“What they told me was I shouldn’t keep working there because I’m undocumented,” Vanegas said. “When I worked at the food court I talked to a lot of police officers and some of the customs and border agents. I had no problems with them until I decided to raise my voice.”

Vanegas has little recourse due to his immigration status. Undocumented workers are highly exploitable:

Immigrant workers are even more vulnerable because they can be threatened with deportation. In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled that undocumented workers cannot seek basic labor protections because they are not legally allowed to work. Therefore, employers can subject undocumented immigrants to abuse and dangerous working conditions for little pay, without worrying about legal action.

To a degree, Vanegas’ citizenship clouds the issue of companies contracted through the government paying below the minimum wage and routinely violating labor laws. Good Jobs Nation is looking to strengthen legal protections for undocumented workers who are being taken advantage of by employers.

Vanegas story is the exact reason these changes are needed — so others in his position will not be afraid to speak out.  

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