You might be surprised that sweatshop labor is in your backyard. I was! Sweatshop stories are typically from overseas and surround well-known companies. For instance, according to laborrights.org the official inductees of the 2010 Sweatshop Hall of Shame are: Abercrombie and Fitch, Gymboree, Hanes, Ikea, Kohl’s, LL Bean, Pier 1 Imports, Propper International, and Walmart.
But that’s all a world away. Right?
Sadly, no. I joined about 60 others Friday afternoon at a Heights area wholesale clothing company on 25th Street to confront the owners for their illegal and immoral practices. Two employees contacted The Houston Interfaith Worker Justice Center after the company failed to fully pay them their last couple of weeks of employment. What was learned is shameful.
While working at the warehouse, the workers made shoes & bags for production, sorted large clothing shipments, and loaded and unloaded merchandise crates. They worked 6 days a week sometimes up to 12 hour days, often with no breaks and in a cramped space with no fire extinguishers, marked exits, or adequate ventilation, among other safety and health violations.
Bad enough, right? Not being paid for working in sweatshop conditions. But there’s more! In talking with the employees it was discovered the workers were never paid overtime and were both making below minimum wage. In other words: their wages were stolen. They are currently owed over $6,500 in stolen wages.
These two workers who are part of the working families that help create our city’s economy, deserve more than sweatshop working conditions and stolen wages. They deserve more than having their former employers run out the back door when presented with documentation of their abuses. They are only two of thousands of Houston workers subject to these types of corrosive jobs which threaten the well-being of our communities and economy.
Wage theft in Houston is prevalent, but unquestionably illegal. The Texas Legislature passed stricter provisions against wage theft which took effect last month. Questions linger as to District Attorney Lykos’ willingness to pursue cases against employers who steal wages. But there are no questions that the Houston community stand in solidarity against this behavior. Area faith leaders, Houston Interfaith Worker Justice Center, Good Jobs-Great Houston and OccupyHouston folks all stoodFriday with these two workers who courageously confronted their employer. And we’ll keep doing so as needed.
I stand with workers because as a Christian the God I follow loves justice. And as I’ve said elsewhere, “The work of justice ultimately demands only one thing from you: that you believe God.” Do we believe God when he says worship (ie fasting) is less important than justice? God asks in Isaiah 58
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
As Jose Eduardo Sanchez, with HIWJ said, “All religions believe in justice, and we work with faith leaders to ensure workers have the respect and dignity they deserve.” Indeed. Many will read this on Sunday, your key day for worship. As you do, consider that God values justice more than worship.
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 workers, advocating for living wages or safe working conditions, or going on a delegation like described here, contact Laura Boston at HIWJ: email@example.com.
Do justice Montrose and Westheimer, love kindness Midtown and Beltway, walk humbly Space and Energy city! You’re be blessed if you do & blessed if your persecuted. And together, we’ll be the remedy to the world’s great problems.
First published on Marty’s Houston Chronicle The Peace Pastor blog on October 23, 2011.