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Labor Day 2015 gives residents of the Rio Grande Valley and civil society a unique and scarce opportunity to reflect on the state of workplace rights and the dire need for local elected officials to step up to the challenge and defend working families in the face of widespread economic injustice.

While the labor rights movement has gained much for large sectors of working families in the U.S, there are many who are not enjoying these rights and are often vulnerable to basic human rights violations such as denial of pay for worked performed.

The Rio Grande Valley is one of the poorest, if not the poorest, regions of the country and economic assaults on workers through unpaid labor are a major contribution in the construction of poverty.

Unpaid labor or wage theft is a national problem impacting low-wage working families and depriving billions of dollars from our communities. Estimates on the issue range as high as $30 billion in unpaid wages. The Department of Labor alone collects hundreds of millions of dollars, touching only the tip of the iceberg of this epidemic since the vast majority of incidents for unpaid labor go unreported.

Wage theft is the failure of employers to pay workers the wages that they are owed. It is routine, purposeful and illegal. The most common methods employers use are paying less than minimum wage; shorting hours; not paying overtime; classifying workers as independent contractors instead of employees, which cheats them out of workers compensation, unemployment insurance, overtime, and payroll tax contributions; forcing employees to work off the clock; making illegal deductions from pay; stealing tips; or simply not paying at all.

According to a study on the Texas construction workers, 1 in 5 construction workers in Texas are victims of wage theft in an industry that employs almost a million workers. In one noted incident of unpaid labor that came to Fuerza del Valle Workers’ Center a large group of cement workers who worked constructing schools in Pharr-SanJuan-Alamo ISD, Sharyland ISD, La Feria ISD, and Harlingen ISD brought wage claims which totaled over $70,000 in unpaid labor for weeks of work.

Fuerza del Valle Workers’ Center is a low wage workers’ center dedicated to supporting working families undergoing the unexpected economic hardship of unpaid labor at the hands of unscrupulous employers. The Workers Center is a part of the South Texas Civil Rights Project and is dedicated to organizing with working families to win back wages and to deter wage theft through education and advocacy. Over $250,000 have been won back by members of the Workers’ Center through direct actions and litigation in the last couple of years. We are proud to be part of a movement that has won back millions of dollars and is on the frontline of creating policy change to transform society.

Labor Day gives us the opportunity to reflect on this and our commitment towards economic justice as a fundamental part of what makes a society great. We urge elected officials to follow the footsteps of Houston and El Paso.

Both of these cities though vigorous advocacy work by Fey Justicia Workers Center in Houston and the Labor Justice Committee along with the Lift Up El Paso Alliance have passed city wide ordinances against wage theft committing those municipalities to create a black list of unethical employers and penalties for engaging in unpaid labor.

We also urge law enforcement authorities to follow the footsteps of Ricardo Rodriguez who has vowed to enforce the section of the Texas Penal Code, 31.04, which makes unpaid labor criminal activity; to work together with community based organizations and the community to build a better Valley, a better Texas.

The government institutions charged with upholding workers fundamental rights, mainly the Texas Workforce Commission and the Department of Labor, are insufficient to curb the tide of wage theft and we need new tools to diminish the high frequency of unpaid labor. City ordinances against wage theft and enforcement of the penal code in regards to theft of service are two routes in the correct step forward in curbing the tide of unpaid labor that routinely occurs across the Rio Grande Valley.

Editor’s Note: This op-ed was written by Hector Guzman Lopez, Erica Galindo, and Michael Callahan-Kapoor. Guzman coordinates the Fuerza del Valle Workers’ Center. Galindo and Callahan-Kapoor are media advisors to the Workers’ Center.

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