by Kim Krisberg
Last month, more than 70 ironworkers walked off an ExxonMobil construction site near Houston, Texas. The workers, known as rodbusters in the industry, weren’t members of a union or backed by powerful organizers; they decided amongst themselves to unite in protest of unsafe working conditions in a state that has the highest construction worker fatality rate in the country.
The workers reported multiple problems with the ExxonMobil subcontractor who hired them, including not being paid on time, not having enough water on site and no access to medical care in the event of an injury. Before the walk-off, one worker became so ill on the job site that he began convulsing on the drive home and had to pull over to the side of the road, where his family picked him up and took him to the hospital. So when the ironworkers recently marched from Houston’s City Hall to ExxonMobil’s downtown offices to demand that the company take its subcontractors to task for neglecting workers’ safety, members of the Houston Interfaith Worker Justice Center joined them. It was a natural fit.
“It was really brave of these workers to step off the job site and draw a line in the sand,” said Laura Perez-Boston, executive director of the center. “Once we heard about it, we joined in solidarity with them.”
Since 2006, the Houston Interfaith Worker Justice Center has been helping low-wage workers learn about their rights and organize for better and safer working conditions. Today, the center has about 300 worker members. Once word got out in the community about the center’s services, Perez-Boston said large numbers of workers consistently began coming to the center to report abuses on the job. With workers pouring in, Perez-Boston and her colleagues began noticing three major trends and took action to address them.
First, they noticed that it was more difficult for women workers to make it to the center due to family responsibilities. In response, the center started a domestic worker group known as La Colmena, the Spanish word for “beehive,” to help organize nannies, housecleaners and caregivers. The group meets on Sundays and creates a space where women can talk freely about their problems. In fact, today the center is partnering with the National Domestic Workers Alliance and university researchers to conduct the first nationwide survey of working conditions in private homes, which is expected to be released in August.
The second trend was consistent reports of workplace safety and health violations. Perez-Boston said workers either didn’t know their rights under OSHA safety rules or were often afraid of retaliation if they complained to employers or requested proper safety equipment. As a result, the center developed a program of health and safety training that holds its gatherings in people’s homes, at local health clinics and at the center. Thirdly, center staff was hearing regular complaints of wage violations and wage theft. So last year, the center’s members organized to launch an anti-wage theft campaign, calling on Houston officials to adopt an ordinance against wage theft and enact real consequences for lawbreaking employers.
While the center works largely with Hispanic workers, all low-income workers are vulnerable to the kinds of workplace abuses that the center is dedicated to ending, Perez-Boston said.
“We hear again and again about the Texas economic miracle, but in reality people have really crappy jobs and have to have two or three jobs just to put food on the table,” she told me. “Our belief is that every job should be able to sustain a family and it shouldn’t keep people in poverty. These jobs aren’t allowing people to progress. It’s not about the individual employee, it’s about the employer. I just don’t see how anyone could agree with stealing someone’s wages.”
Chasing the (earned) money
The problem of wage theft In Houston is steadily gaining attention, thanks to the center’s recently launched effort known as the Down with Wage Theft Campaign.
Perez-Boston explained it to me like this: If an employee steals from an employer, the employer can call the police and set in motion a process to recoup the stolen sum. But what if the employer decides not to pay — or steals wages — from a worker? What kind of effective recourse can a worker take to recoup wages? Not a whole lot. In Houston, there’s no process for workers to file a civil complaint specifically about wage theft. Some workers may have the resources to file a petition with a small claims court, but even if they do win it’s often “just a paper victory — they don’t actually get their wages back,” she said.
“The system is working against workers,” Perez-Boston said.
According to the center’s May 2012 report on wage theft in Houston, “an estimated $753.2 million dollars are lost every year due to wage theft among low-wage workers. The consequences of this loss further depress working family incomes, resulting in decreased community investment and spending and limited economic growth.”
The report found that more than 100 wage and hour violations happen every week in Houston, which is home to the second-highest number of Fortune 500 headquarters after New York City. The abuse is most prevalent among construction and restaurant workers, but affects all types of low-wage workers. Perez-Boston said she’s heard all kinds of excuses from employers who won’t pay, from “I don’t have the money to he’s illegal anyway to she broke a vase in my home.”
“This is a problem in the whole country,” center member Mario Carbajal told me. “When the employer steals the money of the workers, it’s affecting the family economy and the national economy. There’s no way to punish the employers, so they get away with whatever they do.”
Carbajal, who previously served as secretary of the center’s Board of Directors, said he’s optimistic that the wage theft campaign will be successful, but it’s not going to be easy. With the backing of local community, faith and labor organizations, the campaign’s goals are to enact a city ordinance that creates a streamlined process for workers to bring wage theft claims before Houston’s Office of Business Opportunities and to put in place real consequences for employers guilty of wage theft, such as being barred from getting city contracts or having their licenses revoked or denied.
The hope is that the ordinance will create a level playing field so that ethical employers aren’t economically punished for doing the right thing by investing in worker safety and paying livable wages. The campaign has submitted its proposal to the city, but it’s yet to make it on the City Council agenda, Perez-Boston reports.
‘A lot more work and a lot more pressure’
Chris Young, campaign director at the Texas Organizing Project, said that “when companies can commit wage theft, it drives wages down and drives money out of our neighborhoods…and it’s important that every penny that comes into our neighborhoods is protected.” The project is one of the wage theft campaign’s many supporters.
The Texas Organizing Project has 4,000 members and supporters in Harris County, where Houston is located, and works to promote social and economic equality for low- and moderate-income Texans. Young said it was the project’s members who decided to get involved in the Down with Wage Theft Campaign — “it’s so prevalent that it’s not hard to get people to participate,” he said. In fact in January, project members organized in support of construction workers rebuilding schools within the Houston Independent School District. Workers had testified before the school board that subcontractors had failed to pay thousands of dollars in wages.
“Until employers are held accountable, things won’t change,” Young told me.
To date, Down with Wage Theft Campaign supporters have met with city officials, including Houston’s mayor, and held a number of community awareness events. In March, more than a 100 workers, mostly construction and domestic workers, rallied in front of City Hall to end wage theft. Perez-Boston said the center even runs a “justice bus,” which brings workers and supporters to work sites accused of wage, safety and health violations — “we invite the media to follow the mobile process and that helps paint a picture for people of just how frequent this problem is,” she said.
“The goals of the campaign are to pass the ordinance and raise consciousness,” she said. “None of this would work if we didn’t have workers’ buy-in. It’s something that people are really passionate about and people really want to see a change, but it will take a lot more work and a lot more pressure.”
For Houston resident Akua Fayette, wage theft is a problem that can’t be ignored. About six months ago, Fayette found herself at a Texas Organizing Project meeting and was so impressed that she joined the organization that day. As an active participant in the wage theft demonstrations against the Houston Independent School District, Fayette told me that wage theft “just breaks the whole community down. It’s the thing that starts the fire.”
“I’m just so excited that we the people can really be ‘we the people’ and come together like this,” she said. “One thing I’ve learned is that no matter where you go, nobody is going to take care of your community like you will.”
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for a decade.