On the Border of Change: A portrait of the Workers'
Rights Movement in El Paso
by Kim Krisberg
The Pump Handle
July 27, 2012
In the fall of 2011, a new Texas statute took effect
against employers who engage in wage theft, or failing
to pay workers as much as they're owed. The statewide
statute put in place real consequences, such as jail
time and hefty fines, for employers found guilty of
stealing wages from workers. It was a big step forward
in a state where wage theft has become as common as
cowboy boots and pick-up trucks.
In El Paso, which sits on the western-most tip of Texas
on the border with Juarez, Mexico, and is among the most
populous cities in the nation, wage theft has become so
rampant that workers rights advocates have dubbed it an
"epidemic." So it was welcome news when shortly after
the statewide wage theft statute went into effect, El
Paso's county attorneys and sheriff's and police
departments announced they'd begin investigating and
prosecuting cases of wage theft. But turning the law and
promises of enforcement into an on-the-ground reality
has gained little traction in El Paso. So far for the
city's most vulnerable workers, the law is little more
than words on paper.
"A large percentage of our workers are still leaving at
the end of the day frustrated because they didn't get
compensated fairly for the work they've done," said Tom
Power, economic justice advocate with the Paso del Norte
Civil Rights Project. "This isn't only happening to low-
wage workers; it's happening everywhere. It's become
part of the culture here in El Paso and it's getting out
Power is also an organizer with El Paso's Labor Justice
Committee, a branch of the civil rights project that
began in 2009 with just a handful of members and today
boasts more than 200. The committee has become the face
of worker justice in El Paso, investigating wage theft
complaints, taking direct action to recoup stolen wages
and training workers to become advocates on behalf of
their communities. A 2011 report on wage theft in El
Paso that surveyed more than 250 low-wage workers found
that 20 percent were regularly paid below minimum wage
and two-thirds didn't receive overtime pay. Among the
report's many examples of worker abuses, a domestic
service worker who'd brought her case to the civil
rights project was paid a mere $1.60 an hour for an
"I've been completely perplexed about the sheer amount
of abuse that's occurring in El Paso," Power told me.
"It seems to be happening in most restaurants, in most
construction sites.it's just the picture of low-wage
work in El Paso."
Workers rise up
This past spring, workers came to the Labor Justice
Committee complaining of wage theft at a prominent sushi
restaurant on El Paso's east side known as Susaki
Lounge. They brought with them bounced checks
representing several weeks of unpaid wages. The
committee took on the case and launched an
investigation, finding that the employer had an
extensive history of not paying workers. The
investigation eventually led to a silent protest outside
the restaurant, with 10 workers entering the restaurant
in an attempt to speak with the restaurant's owner. They
were kicked out, but the action eventually led to
success: Two workers were fully repaid back wages.
The action against the sushi restaurant is a typical
example of how the Labor Justice Committee, which is run
by the workers themselves, is raising awareness around
wage theft and holding employers accountable. The
process goes like this: A worker comes to the committee
with a wage theft complaint. The committee then fills
the worker in on his or her rights and how the committee
can help. The worker is given about a week to think it
over; if he or she returns committed to the recovery
process, the committee votes on whether to take on the
case. If members vote in favor, the first step is
sending a letter signed by all 200 members of the
committee to the employer demanding the back wages
Most of the time, Power said, employers won't respond to
the letter. So the next step is to call the employer; if
that doesn't work, it's time to negotiate with the
employer face-to-face. The worker in question, along
with a trained promotor (someone who's come to the
committee with a complaint themselves and is now a
trained worker advocate), brings the employer a written
settlement agreement. The tactic sometimes works, but
more often it doesn't. (Power said employers come up
with all kinds of excuses for not paying, with many
threatening to report a worker's immigration status.)
When these attempts don't work, the committee turns to
other means. Worker delegations go to an employer's home
or workplace and organize very visible, though silent,
vigils in protest of the employer's actions. Usually, a
handful of workers will try to confront the employer
during a vigil and let him or her know that protestors
are well within their rights. The media is notified and
invited to observe. This, not surprisingly, is very
effective, Power said. Most cases that lead to vigils
result in successfully recouping a worker's wages.
"Usually, we're pestering the person enough so that
something happens.either getting the money back or the
employer leaving town," Power said.
Right now, the committee is working on eight open cases.
In 2011, the committee met with almost 75 workers with
complaints of wage theft, though many were referred to
government agencies or for civil litigation because the
amount of lost wages was in the thousands of dollars. A
worker's commitment to the process is a key factor in
whether the Labor Justice Committee will take on a case
- "the process won't work if the worker does not invest
themselves fully in the case," Power noted.
"What's hurting the economy in El Paso isn't
undocumented workers; it's employers taking advantage of
them and fattening their own wallets," Power said. "The
rich get richer and the poor get poorer."
Beyond wage theft, El Paso's Labor Justice Committee is
expanding its reach on workplace safety as well. The
committee regularly hears about worksite safety
violations and has begun giving more and more OSHA
safety trainings to workers. Right now, Power said the
safety trainings are focused on educating construction
workers, but the committee eventually hopes to train
employers as well - "to get at the problem at its
roots," Power said.
Workplace safety education seems to be uncharted ground
for workers in El Paso, he said. There's an incredible
dearth in how much workers know about their labor
rights, especially when it comes to safety conditions,
he said, adding that workers are often paying out of
their own pockets for expensive safety equipment that's,
in fact, an employer's responsibility to provide. To
date, the committee has trained 240 workers on their
OSHA safety rights.
Looking toward the future, Power said the committee
hopes to build a workers' center similar to ones already
operating in Austin and Houston. Another hope is to one
day create a type of hiring hall where the committee
would bring in employers who've committed to certain
workplace standards and wages - "it could revolutionize
the day labor industry," he said.
"The abuses we see are happening to all kinds of workers
in El Paso and it's only helping to delegitimize the
city as a fair workplace," Power said.
To learn more about El Paso's Labor Justice Committee,
Houston, We Have A Workers' Rights Problem: Profile
of A Worker Justice Center in Texas' Biggest City
by Kim Krisberg
The Pump Handle
July 9, 2012
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
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,
"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
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-
`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
To learn more about the Houston Interfaith Worker
Justice Center and the Down with Wage Theft Campaign,
visit www.hiwj.org or www.downwithwagetheft.org.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living
in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public
health for a decade.
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