While the labor rights movement has gained much for working families in the U.S, there are many who are not enjoying such legal protections. These workers, who like others across the country are helping communities and economies thrive, are often vulnerable to basic human rights violations, such as denial of pay for work performed.
Receiving pay for work performed is fundamental in the US, as outlined in the Fair Labor Standards Act.
The Rio Grande Valley is one of the poorest, if not the poorest, regions of the country. In our part of the country, economic assaults on workers through unpaid labor are a major contribution to the "construction" of poverty.
Unpaid labor, which is sometimes referred to as wage theft, is a national problem that affects working families and deprives large amounts of money from being circulated in our communities. Estimates on the issue range as high as $30 billion in unpaid wages. The US Department of Labor alone collects hundreds of millions of dollars in wages that were originally not paid, touching only the tip of the iceberg of this epidemic since these cases often go unreported.
Wage theft is the failure of employers to pay workers money that they are owed. It is routine, purposeful and illegal. Common methods that employers use are paying less than the minimum wage, shorting hours and not paying overtime. Some employers also classify workers as independent contractors instead of employees, which cheats them out of workers' compensation, unemployment insurance, overtime and payroll tax contributions. In other cases, employers make unlawful deductions from a worker's earnings and simply just keep tips from customers.
According to a study on the Texas construction workers, 1 in 5 construction workers in the state are victims of wage theft in an industry that employs almost a million workers. In one noted incident of unpaid labor that came to the attention of Fuerza del Valle Workers' Center, a large group of cement workers who helped build public schools in South Texas brought wage claims which totaled over $70,000 in unpaid labor.
Fuerza del Valle Workers' Center supports low-wage working families undergoing the unexpected economic hardship of unpaid labor at the hands of unscrupulous employers. The Workers' Center, which is part of the South Texas Civil Rights Project, is dedicated to organizing with working families to win back wages and deter wage theft through education and advocacy.
Over $250,000 have been won by members of the Workers' Center through direct actions and litigation in recent 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 to transform society, fight poverty and support working families.
Labor Day gave us the opportunity to reflect on this and our commitment to 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, to reflect on the realities of workers in their cities and not wait until Labor Day 2016 to think about them again.
These cities, persuaded by advocacy work by Fe y Justicia Workers Center in Houston and the Labor Justice Committee along with the Lift Up El Paso Alliance, have passed ordinances against wage theft. They require lists of unethical employers and penalties for engaging in unpaid labor.
We also urge law enforcement to follow the footsteps of Ricardo Rodriguez, the district attorney for Hidalgo County, who has vowed to enforce the section of Texas Penal Code, 31.04, which makes unpaid labor criminal activity. He also is willing to work together with grassroots organizations and the community to build a better Valley – and a better Texas.
In our opinion, the government institutions charged with upholding worker rights, mainly the Texas Workforce Commission and the Department of Labor, are facing challenges in curbing the tide of wage theft. We need new tools to diminish the high frequency of unpaid labor.
This is where city leaders can play a major role in serving residents. Municipal ordinances against wage theft and enforcement of the penal code to help workers receive money they are rightfully owed are two realistic ways to curb the tide of unpaid labor that routinely occurs across the Rio Grande Valley.