This refrain is being heard every day in every corner of our city. Wage theft in Houston is exactly what it sounds like: the stealing of money from someone who has rightfully earned it. And Houstonians are notoriously creative in their ability to steal from their employees.
Take the story of Oscar, for instance. I met Oscar last Thursday at a speakers training event for faith leaders on the topic of wage theft. Oscar worked hard as a construction worker for a local company. As construction workers, he and his fellow employees work in some of the most dangerous conditions of all area employees. Texas has few laws regulating safety for construction workers, has no mandatory drink breaks, and is the only state without mandatory workers compensation. Perhaps this is why we lead the nation in deaths among construction workers, witnessing a worker death ever 2.5 days. So it might come as a shock to hear that after working several weeks in this job, his employer began demanding overtime work but refused to provide overtime pay. As time went on, Oscar’s wages began to fall, and finally dropped below minimum wage. Not paying overtime and paying less than minimum wage (both completely illegal) are two excellent ways to steal wages, if you’re in to that kind of thing. Misclassifying workers as “independent contractors,” or taking inappropriate deductions are two more creative ways Houston’s employers steal wages.
Today Oscar is owed $3,500, or half of what he earned, wages stolen from him by his employer. His employer has not shown up in court to give Oscar his due. Oscar, a low-wage worker, is forced to make a tough decision when his wages are stolen. Do you invest substantial time and money (that you’ve earned but not received) in recovering your stolen wages, or do you cut your losses and find another job? Oscar chose to advocate for what he and others have earned with help from the Houston Interfaith Worker Justice Center.
When I first moved to Houston after Hurricane Ike, I didn’t know the widespread systemic nature of wage theft in American cities. In fact, I’m not sure I’d ever even heard the phrase “wage theft” at all. Labor unions, workers rights, strikes: these were as foreign to me as the top ten ways people actually steal wages. I certainly had no concept that what the citizens of Wisconsin and Michigan and other states are fighting for today is what Texas has already taken from its workers!
But I knew the heart of God beats for justice and that economic justice is a central tenant of the world God is working to create (read more here). And then I began to hear the stories of individuals like Oscar’s whose lives have been wasted by the theft of their rightfully earned wages. And after hearing the stories of individuals, I began to awaken to the truth of the 2010 Wage Theft Report written by Christine Kovic, “Rather than a few bad apples – or employers who do not follow labor laws – the barrel itself is rotten.” It’s not isolated to individuals, its of the nature of the system itself!”
The more I learned, the more I support the threefold approach to combating wage theft found in 2010’s Wage Theft Report and in Kim Bobo’s book Wage Theft in America.
- Support for unions
- Advocacy for change of labor laws and enforcement.
- Direct Action as citizens, which consists of visits, delegations, vigils, and protests.
There is a place, a powerful place, for faith communities and faith leaders in the fight against injustice. I’ve been involved in direct action and seen employers bend in the presence of faith-filled morality. I’ve watched workers whose wages have been stolen recover not just money rightfully earned, but dignity and community. I’ve sat in downtown high rises and church libraries discussing Biblical justice with company CEO’s and employers who make multi-million dollar salaries. Why? Because ultimately, according to our book, its our job, our call, our demand that people are provided justice. It’s ultimately not the states, or the unions primarily responsible to confront economic injustice or promote fair and living wages: its our job. Wage theft will never cease to be a problem for our workers until the faith community rises up to speak, and act.
If you or someone you know has had or suspects you have had wages stolen, please contact Houston Interfaith Worker Justice Center (713.862.8222). They can and will help! If you are interested in learning more about wage theft, standing in solidarity with people like Oscar, advocating for living wages or safe working conditions, or going on a delegation, contact Laura Boston at HIWJ: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Also published on Marty’sHouston Chronicle blog, The Peace Pastor, at blog.chron.com/thepeacepastor. Follow Marty on Twitter.