by Kim Krisberg

For six months, Jorge Rubio worked at a local chain of tortilla bakeries and taquerias in the cities of Brownsville and San Benito, both in the very southern tip of Texas. Rubio, 42, prepared the food, cleaned equipment, served customers. Eventually, he decided to quit after being overworked for months.

On his last day of work this past January, his employer refused to pay him the usual $50 for an 11-hour workday. The employer told Rubio that sales were too low to pay him. A couple months later, Rubio was referred to Fuerza del Valle, a young workers center in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley. When center staff took a closer look at his case, they realized he’d been paid only about $4.50 per hour for the entire term of his employment, which is well below the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. Rubio told me (though a translator) that until then, he hadn’t realized his employer was violating wage standards — that’s what everyone else was making, too. He said he was very bothered that he wasn’t being paid what the law said he should.

So with the help of the workers center, he sent a letter to his former employer, demanding not only his last day’s pay, but all of his back wages. The total came to about $2,300, which doesn’t even include overtime (federal law requires 1.5 times regular wages for each hour above 40 worked in a week). Multiple in-person meetings, two protests and a campaign of leafleting followed the letter, but Rubio has yet to recoup the wages he’s earned. In June, Rubio contacted the Department of Labor, which is expected to launch an investigation into the restaurant chain soon. Today, Rubio is one of a few Fuerza del Valle workers-turned-leaders working in the border county of Cameron.

“It’s important to change the atmosphere of exploitation and make an example to other businesses,” said Rubio. “We are building community support in this movement to create a better valley.”

A valley in need of change

Fuerza del Valle (Forces of the Valley) launched just two years ago as a response to rampant wage theft. The workers’ center is a project of the Equal Voice Network, a coalition of 10 nonprofits working for social change in the Rio Grande Valley, a majority-Hispanic, four-county region on the U.S.-Mexico border that is home to more than 1 million people, with many more who migrate to the area for seasonal work. The majority of people seeking help to recoup wages are undocumented, said Hector Guzman Lopez, coordinator for Fuerza del Valle and a staffer at the South Texas Civil Rights Project, one of the organizational members of the Equal Voice Network.

He said one of the most common reactions he encounters from undocumented workers is surprise that the protections of wage law apply to them too. From documented workers, the most common response is “I can’t believe this is happening to me. This is America.”

Workers and community members protest wage and labor abuses at a tortilleria in Brownsville, Texas. Photo courtesy Fuerza del Valle

 

“Wage theft is definitely an epidemic here,” Lopez told me. “Usually, everyone I talk to has a story to tell about themselves or someone they know (regarding) unpaid labor. This is bad for everyone because it’s not only money being denied to a particular person, but to our families and our communities. It’s money that’s not circulating in our economies. It’s just wrong to not pay someone for their labor. It’s virtual slavery…we are not being held against our will, but our labor is not being respected and that’s not right.”

Fuerza del Valle is a mobile workers center, hosting three know-your-rights legal clinics every week in three different valley cities. During the clinics, center staffers educate newcomers about their rights and meet with people about ongoing wage theft cases. In the last eight months, the workers center has documented more than 150 cases, not only on wage theft, but for injuries on the job, discrimination and unjust firing. The more word gets out about the growing workers center, “the more people feel like they now have a place to go,” Lopez said. In fact, the center just wrapped up a successful wage theft campaign against a sushi restaurant in McAllen, Texas, and the five workers involved got their wages back.

The center’s wage theft process is similar to the efforts of workers centers in Austin, Houston and El Paso. It begins with sending a letter to the employer, followed by phone calls and in-person meetings. Lopez said a staffer from the workers center accompanies a worker during person-to-person meetings to make sure the dynamic doesn’t get abusive, but the negotiation is left up to the worker. (Lopez told me that a lot of the employers he encounters think they can treat workers any way they want, and as you can imagine, threats involving a person’s immigration status are not uncommon — “it’s practically the norm,” Lopez said. He said some bosses threaten to call border control even if a worker was born in the U.S.) If all such efforts fail, the next step is small claims court. In the last eight months, the workers center has helped 30 people recoup their wages.

“We can break the culture of exploitation we have in the Rio Grande Valley,” Lopez said. “But it’ll take different sectors of society to be on board to really change things. Wage theft is an issue that affects all of us, so it’ll take all of us to tackle this.”

‘Suave con la persona, fuerte con el problema’

That’s the mantra Cris Rocha lives by when dealing with bad employers. It means being smooth with the person, but tough with the problem.

“We need to be smooth to the people, even it’s a bad boss, but firm with the problem,” she told me through a translator.

Rocha is a community organizer with the valley’s La Union Del Pueblo Entero (LUPE), a community union. She’s been dealing with wage theft issues among farmworkers since she began working with LUPE in 1991, when it was United Farmworkers. She said it used to be much riskier for both workers and organizers to confront employers about wage theft (she’s even had a gun pulled on her). But with the new workers center, Rocha said workers are more confident about coming forward and the process for recouping wages is much more efficient.

Over her two decades of organizing in the Rio Grande Valley, she said she’s probably met more than 1,000 workers who’ve experienced wage theft. In addition to simply refusing to pay outright or paying substandard wages, she said a common tactic among employers is accusing a farmworker of picking less produce than he or she claimed. The discrepancy is difficult for workers to prove, so Rocha often teaches them how to start keeping their own written records.

Workers and organizers protest wage theft practices outside a sushi restaurant in McAllen, Texas. Photo courtesy Fuerza del Valle

 

In the last four years, the number of wage theft complaints Rocha encounters has been on the rise. She said she believes the increase isn’t only due to more people coming forward; the problem is actually getting worse. Today, she helps to spread word of Fuerza del Valle and mobilize workers against wage theft in the valley’s colonias, which are among the most impoverished communities in the United States; oftentimes, they have no pavement, no public waste service, no public street lights.

“I’m optimistic because every time we do recoup wages, it encourages me to continue,” she said. “But we need more support because there’s no security for workers at all.”

According to a June 2012 report on wage theft from the Progressive States Network, wage theft is no minor problem:

“Wage theft, or the systemic non-payment of wages, is a problem affecting millions of workers across the country. Over 60% of low-wage workers suffer wage violations each week. As a result, they lose 15% of their earnings each year, on average. The vast majority of these workers are over the age of twenty-five, and most are supporting at least one child.”

The report notes that wage theft has a “serious impact on state revenues, amounting to billions of dollars per year in tax and payroll fraud.” The report’s authors give Texas a failing grade on all counts when it comes wage theft — Fs in accessing justice, transparency and accountability, and securing justice. The dismal score is even more of a letdown considering a new statewide statute that took effect in 2011 that puts in place serious consequences, such as fines and jail time, for Texas employers guilty of wage theft. But getting Texas law enforcement on board isn’t easy. For example, in the valley city of San Juan, police refuse to even take a report on wage theft, said Elliott Tucker, an attorney and organizer with the South Texas Civil Rights Project.

“We’re in this loop where we haven’t been enforcing the law and lots of people are simply exploiting cheap labor,” Tucker told me. “We’re stuck in this cycle right now and we’ve created structures based on this cycle. It’s disgusting.”

Tucker works with a variety of workers on wage theft problems, from agricultural to restaurant to construction workers. He said the valley is home to systematic problems among public and private subcontractors — “fly-by-night” contractors who submit the lowest contract bid because they know they won’t be paying payroll taxes and providing safety equipment; they just drive though the colonias, pick up people, “work them to death,” don’t pay and then move on to a different colonia, he said.

“Workers are just sick and tired of being abused and trampled on,” he said.

But Tucker said he’s confident things will change in the valley — “the economy down here is doing pretty well and as it develops further there will be a much more formalized economy and hopefully that will bring with it improvements in workers’ rights.”

Lopez says he’s hopeful too. He reports that he and fellow advocates with Fuerza del Valle have drafted a memorandum of understanding about the new Texas wage theft statute and the role of police in enforcing it. Nobody’s signed onto the memorandum yet, but the hope is that all law enforcement agencies in valley communities that Fuerza del Valle organizes in will eventually sign on and take the issue seriously.

“We’ve just got to have faith and we always have to carry hope, otherwise it’s hard to keep moving forward,” Lopez said. “We just have to be optimistic that we can change things and that we will change things.”

To learn more about the work of Fuerza del Valle, visit http://lupenet.org or www.texascivilrightsproject.org.

Special thanks to Hector Guzman Lopez, who provided translation during two of this story’s interviews.

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for a decade.