Contractor accused of exploiting immigrant laborers, making them sleep in shipping containers

A Federal court case begins this week against a subcontractor, accused of exploiting immigrant construction workers and forcing them to live in shipping containers. Now, San Jose city officials are now considering expanded worker protections to keep a situation like this from happening again.

The allegations surrounding Silvery Towers are serious: that a subcontractor, Job Hernandez, lured workers from Mexico, made them live in locked shipping containers or warehouses, and didn't pay them what they were owed.

And while the case gets underway in federal court this week, officials says there are others out there.

"In the non-unionized industry, wage theft is pervasive. Every other construction job you go to you'll find somebody who's not getting their entire paycheck," said David Bini with the Santa Clara and San Benito Counties Building and Construction Trades Council.

According to the Santa Clara County Wage theft coalition, 1 in 6 California construction workers is now a victim of wage theft. In San Jose alone, workers have had more than $2.9 million stolen.

"These workers are victimized by unscrupulous developers and shady contractors and they need our help," said Ruth Silver-Taube with the Wage Theft Coalition.

San Jose officials say they're stepping up. They'll vote this week on revising their wage theft ordinance to give it more teeth and to require more disclosure from contractors up front.

A loophole in the existing ordinance left the city with no recourse in cases like Silvery Towers.

"We're here to protect the rights of workers, those who are vulnerable, those who don't have a voice in the matter," said Magdalena Carasco, a city councilmember from District 5,

"If you are a developer or a contractor stealing from your workers, exploiting those workers or short changing them then you should be afraid," Raul Peralez, a city councilmember in District 3 said.

In the Hernandez case, workers describe being locked in their living quarters, sleeping 20 in an attic and being forced to use a single bathroom with no running water.

Court documents show one man was paid just $8,000 for 18 months of full-time work.

Those in the construction industry say when it comes to protecting workers, more needs to be done.

"Contractors who want to steal wages and cheat the system are going to find a way around things. and what we need to do is remain vigiliant and continue to enact ordinances that plug those gaps," Bini said.

The court case regarding Silvery Towers is expected to last more than a week. The city council will take up the revised ordinance at Tuesday's meeting.