This Artist-Designed App Helps Day Laborers Fight Wage Theft

Isaac Kaplan
Dec 8, 2016 11:27PM

Image courtesy Jornaler@ App on Facebook and A Blade of Grass.

Wage theft—the denial of rightfully owed payment or benefits to an employee—is an overlooked labor crisis in the United States. A study published in 2010 estimated that “front-line workers in low-wage industries in New York City lose more than $18.4 million per week as a result of employment and labor law violations.” That’s almost a billion dollars per year in New York alone. Nationwide, wage theft amounts to losses of more than $50 billion a year. For a worker making minimum wage in a 40-hour workweek, failing to receive payment for half an hour of work per day can result in a 10 percent decrease in total yearly income.

Andy Puzder, President-elect Donald Trump’s recent pick to head the Department of Labor, is notoriously hostile to government regulation of labor rights. Nevertheless, laws do exist to prevent wage theft and to help workers recoup losses should they occur. Still, workers often lack the resources, know-how, and leverage to enforce their rights.

Jornaler@ is a new app with the goal of empowering day laborers, who are especially at risk of exploitation given how they are often undocumented and working informally or on a temporary basis. (Jornalero is Spanish for laborer.) Launched in late November, the app lets workers fight back by helping them keep track of their hours, warn other users of exploitative contractors, and connect with institutional support should they need to file a complaint. The app’s development began in 2014 out of conversations the artist Sol Aramendi had with artist Barrie Cline, union workers, and day laborers, the latter of whom would wait on street corners in the early morning hours, looking for construction work every day.

Though wage theft can take many forms, it commonly involves a contractor simply not paying up at the end of the week. With Jornaler@, Aramendi tackles this practice head on. The artistry lies in critical connections between workers and organizations—what Aramendi calls a “social sculpture.”

“There are all these collaborators contributing to this project, with artmaking involved in different phases,” she told Artsy. “For me, the artwork is the whole two years of the project, with all the relationships.” Over time, what started as a small project attracted the support of major organizations, including the AFL-CIO and New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE). In early 2015, Aramendi received a fellowship from A Blade of Grass, an organization for socially engaged art, which provided much needed funding. San Francisco’s Rebel Idealist spearheaded design beginning in 2016, and the app received additional financial backing from unions and other philanthropic groups like the Ford Foundation.

Aramendi met with workers at night in order to determine what features the app should have. In our conversation, she stressed the collaborative nature of her effort. She calls herself a “project manager” and credits many of the ideas in the app, which is avaliable in both Spanish and English, as coming from the workers themselves. The most basic tool the app provides is a journal that allows day laborers to input their hours and expected wages, making it easier to record vital information necessary to recovering withheld pay. The app also lets them connect with worker-rights groups and, in turn, lawyers who can help recover lost wages. It will also allow users to take photographs of cars belonging to exploitative contractors and to alert nearby app users—another feature that came out of her conversations with the community.

However, any database that stores the information of undocumented workers—even with good intentions—could in the future be used in the service of deportations or criminal investigations. New York’s municipal ID program, which lets undocumented citizens open bank accounts and gain access to other basic services, has struggled with this very issue; beginning next year, they will no longer keep records for new applicants, although it is unclear what will happen to records for the 900,000 who have already applied. To combat the problem, the Jornaler@ app will store all data anonymously, with profiles including a user’s phone number but not their name.

Aramendi has long engaged with socially driven work in immigrant communities, particularly in Queens. Prior to the app, she created Project Luz, a “nomadic space” that allowed immigrants to take photographs, share stories, and highlight the issues impacting them. The work has a personal connection. “When I moved here, I became an immigrant,” Aramendi, who is from Argentina, told me. Her interest in wage theft came about after earlier projects and collaborations with artists and activists, particularly at the Queens Museum.

But Jornaler@ has found an audience far outside the art world. “It’s something that started as an art project, but then all these alliances [formed] that were unexpected,” Aramendi said. Of particular note is the interest of the AFL-CIO, since the dominating narrative is that blue collar union jobs are threatened by the very undocumented workers the app aims to protect. Aramendi described the first conversation that inspired the app, in which undocumented workers were talking with union workers. “One of the union workers said, ‘OK, why did you come here to this country to take our jobs?’ The typical narrative,” Aramendi recalled. “This evolved into a very nice conversation where there was an understanding of who was the oppressor, why we were thinking those things, and where those thoughts were coming from.” Indeed, in what Aramendi called “a step forward in solidarity,” the president of the AFL-CIO was the main speaker at the app’s launch.

So far the app has been downloaded by roughly 100 people, with a 25-person pilot study occurring in conjunction with the Worker Institute at Cornell. That research will determine what’s working in the app, what isn’t, and what new features can be added. A major hurdle is in getting the app in the right hands. “We’re talking about a population that doesn’t use this kind of application. It’s something new, a new piece of technology to bring to a population,” Aramendi said. But she’s happy with the feedback so far. “What I’ve heard from the workers is that they feel protected.”

Isaac Kaplan