|BROWNSVILLE, September 1 - As people enjoy time at the beach or barbequing for Labor Day, Fuerza del Valle Workers’ Center urges society to reflect on the most vulnerable sectors of the modern day workforce, those who do not get paid for their work.
We urge residents in the Rio Grande Valley to consider and partake in action to curb such labor abuse.
Fuerza del Valle Workers’ Center, a low wage worker organization dedicated to educating, advocating, and organizing with working families to transform exploitative relationships in the workforce, has been responding to the need of many unprotected workers when it comes to labor abuse.
Fuerza del Valle provides the tools necessary for workers to fight back unpaid labor and other abuses through weekly “Know Your Rights Clinics” and vigorous outreach. These “clinics” consist of brief wage theft orientations, basic labor law and tools to solve wage claims. They are kept alive with Fuerza del Valle members, volunteers and ally organization such as La Union del Pueblo Entero, South Texas Civil Rights Project, Mano A Mano promotoras amongst others.
Through these orientations the Workers’ Center has managed to capture a glimpse of poverty in the Rio Grande Valley reflecting the reality the economist Paul Osterman highlights when he states the RGV is home to the lowest-paid workers in the country. A quarter of workers in the Rio Grande Valley is not even paid the minimum wage (a poverty wage), taking only an average of $6.19 or less an hour home (a sub-poverty wage). The average wage for adults is $8.14 an hour.
No wonder cities in the Valley routinely make annual lists for Nation's Poorest year after year. While the Valley's economy has continued to be praised and lauded for its ability to thrive as the rest of the country took a downturn in the economic recession, the reality is businesses may be faring well but working families are actually only scraping by. More needs to be done by legislators at all levels of government in order to fight poverty and transform our current state.
The Workers’ Center has documented hundreds of incidents involving wage theft (over 150 this year so alone) and helped file suit in many situations involving subminimum wages. There are warehouses in the Valley where it is a constant practice to pay below the minimum wage and ignore their obligations to pay overtime. The Department of Labor has investigated cases like these; however, if the import-export industry in the RGV is to be a pathway leading to prosperity for the RGV and not a road towards poverty for working families then serious action in investigating and assuring labor law is respected is in need. Work must be rewarded fairly, not with sub-poverty wages, an all too common form of wage theft.
Besides warehouse workers, workers in the fast food industry and domestic workers are also facing wage theft and other labor abuse such as constant disrespect of labor laws. A recent survey finds that nearly nine out of ten fast food workers, 89 percent, allege a form of wage theft nationwide. Either hours are missing or there is no overtime pay contributing greatly to the misery of workers nationwide and in the RGV.
Domestic workers in the Rio Grande Valley are rarely paid the minimum wage the majority of them are entitled to under the Fair Labor Standards Act. One only has to read the classified ads soliciting domestic help and do the math with the pay employers are offering, $150, $130, $200 if you are lucky. If you are working ten hours a day for six days a week that is 60 hours, many domestic workers work even more. Two hundred dollars for 60 hours would yield $3.33 an hour, a super-exploitative labor situation RGV domestic workers are living with. Labor practices like these need to stop if we’d truly wish to value work.
Construction workers in Texas work in some of the bleakest landscape; one in five will go without payment for their work, an absurd number given the fact that the Texas construction industry is currently booming. A recent wage theft claim came to the Workers’ Center doorstep when ten carpenters came forward with three weeks or more of unpaid labor at a HUD (Housing and Urban Development) site in Los Fresnos. It is crucial that federally funded programs are constructed with the integrity of the workers and the law in mind - especially since they are overseen by government entities and funded by hard-earned tax dollars.
Making the Rio Grande Valley a better place for workers includes an adequate response and support from law-enforcement when workers report wage theft. The police, sherrif and DA each have a respective duty to enforce and prosecute criminal behavior conducted by employers and make sure that workers are protected from criminal wage theft. The Texas Penal Code considers unpaid wages a criminal offense not simply a civil matter.
The epidemic of wage theft should be of great concern for all public leaders who are entrusted by residents to make social conditions for a better society. The Rio Grande Valley needs to follow the example of Houston and what is being debated in El Paso. Rio Grande Valley cities need to enact strong citywide ordinances against wage theft to defend working families and ensure workers are paid for the work they perform. With such ordinances serious consequences such as stripping businesses of licenses necessary to operate in cities will serve as a deterrent to secure and defend the right to receive just remuneration for work performed.
City ordinances that refuse to renew business licenses to establishments who have committed wage theft can act as a deterrent to bad-faith employers and may encourage more workers to speak up if they have been cheated out of their wages. This Labor Day should be commemorated by valuing labor and the people who provide it by providing them support and significant means to end their exploitation. Join the movement for an RGV without exploitative labor practices and fair wages, visit www.fuerzadelvalle.org or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hector Guzman Lopez coordinates the Fuerza del Valle Workers’ Center. Erika Galindo is a media advisor for Fuerza del Valle Workers' Center. She attended Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi where she served as managing editor at the Island Waves student newspaper.