Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Labor of Love

Rio Grande Valley groups supporting workers’ right gathered on Labor Day to lodge accusations of wage theft in the region at a press conference Monday in downtown Brownsville.

The Fuerza Del Valle Workers’ Center, based in Alamo, and Brownsville’s Movimiento Del Valle Por Los Derechos Humanos spoke of laws they plan to push for at the state level during the next legislative session.

“We’re starting a struggle to end the tradition of labor abuse here in the Valley,” Hector Guzman Lopez, Fuerza del Valle coordinator, said.

He said groups all over the state will lobby for new laws under the Build a Better Texas Coalition that include:
>> Strengthened civil and criminal penalties for employers who commit wage theft.
>> Required workers’ compensation coverage for construction employers.
>> Rest breaks for construction workers at government sites.

Kathryn Youker, an attorney with Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, also spoke at the press conference. She said workers often don’t know their rights. In areas with large immigrant populations wage theft is common and labor laws in the U.S. were crafted with private enforcement in mind, not public, she explained.

“They rely on the workers stepping forward when their rights are abused to enforce their rights,” she said. “It takes a great deal of courage for workers to come forward and that’s one of the biggest obstacles we have in the Valley — it’s the fear of retaliation by the employer.”

While undocumented immigrants do not have a right to work in the U.S., if they are hired they are entitled to their wages regardless of their immigration status, she said. The federal and Texas minimum wage is $7.25 an hour.

“When you don’t pay a worker overtime or you don’t pay them minimum wage, it hurts the economy and it hurts other businesses who comply with the law,” Youker said. “It’s unfair competition. These laws were meant to make an even playing field, not just for workers, but for businesses.”

Organizers said they chose to host the press conference on Monday because of the significance the holiday holds to the labor movement. In 1894, Congress passed an act that made the first Monday in September a national holiday to recognize the social and economic achievements of American workers, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

“Here in Brownsville, in particular, we know there’s lot of businesses that are used to paying whatever they want, as if there’s no minimum wage,” Guzman Lopez said.

He said workers who are victims of wage theft – which includes failure to pay wages, failure to pay the minimum wage for applicable positions or failure to pay overtime – often work in restaurants, construction, on farms or in homes as domestic laborers.

Youker said there is an ongoing case against Buffalo Wings & Rings in Weslaco in which 17 clients allege that they were not properly paid tips and did not receive overtime pay.

“We do have basically a free market of labor prices,” she said of the Valley. “We have a heavy influx of immigrant labor, willing to work for $2 an hour, because they’re exploited. Is that really a model of civilization that we want to follow? Is that something we can say we’re proud of as Americans? I don’t think so.”

Youker acknowledged Texas is often touted as a pro-business state by lawmakers, responding:

“I’m not an economist or a politician. … But I can say, I think treating workers right; the way you treat your workers is going to help the economy. The easiest fix to ending poverty is to pay people a living wage. It’s very simple. That’s the law. … “We don’t want to attract businesses who don’t respect Texas workers.”

For more information about the Fuerza Del Valle Workers’ Center call Guzman Lopez at (956) 787-8171, extension 102. Call the Movimiento Del Valle Por Los Derechos Humanos at 465-6870.