Why does the Arizona Worker Rights Center even need to be here? Isn’t it a simple concept, that if someone works they should be compensated for their work? Seems like it. Shouldn’t our efforts be more focused on higher wages, safer working conditions, forming unions and on and on? So what is at the root of this phenomenon known as wage theft? To be clear, I’m not talking about a contractor who simply hasn’t been paid by a homeowner and can’t pay his worker or a misunderstanding of wage and hour law or a mistake on payroll. I’m talking about consciously, and knowingly withholding available wages from someone that you should morally and legally pay. At the center of this issue lies greed, competition and the ability to completely separate oneself from the moral responsibility to recognize the humanity in the worker.
While compounded locally by the profoundly racist anti-immigrant narrative dominating the current political discourse, wage theft is clearly an international phenomenon. I used to work in construction- paving highways. Our crew was majority white, racism was part of the culture and when we would encounter jobs that required concrete, my co-workers would often state, “that’s Mexican work” (not exactly in those words). Makes me wonder why I was the one who crawled inside to pour concrete in the culverts we installed…. Anyhow, when I was an undergrad I had the pleasure of doing an internship in a small town outside of Tuxtla Gutierrez, Chiapas, Mexico, which is a border state to Guatemala. While working with my colleagues, I encountered nearly identical comments from my Mexican cohorts. When we passed some construction sites pouring concrete they would state, “that’s Guatemalan work.” Same thing happens in Costa Rica with Nicaraguan migrant workers and on and on. Makes me think of the tragically similar connection between the nearly 20 thousand migrant souls that have perished in the Mediterranean Sea over the past 2 decades alongside those that have died in the Sonoran Desert. Poverty, inequality, violence and corruption leads us, the human family, to migrate in search of better conditions and when we search for better conditions we are often met with another form of exploitation.
Here in Phoenix, the resulting exploitation comes in many forms, but our work specifically seeks to alleviate the exploitation of migrant workers in low-wage jobs. It’s easy to demonize local employers who are exploiting and ripping off working families. It’s harder to take a serious look at systemic issues- the manufactured cultural constructs alongside state-sponsored bigotry that allow for such exploitation to materialize. Just like any other human behavior, these employers must learn about tactics and strategies to increase profits, maintain an obedient workforce, and above all, their efforts must be legitimized by a society that considers them, “successful.” Question is, where do they learn this? How do we allow this to take place in a society that claims to be one of democratic principles, morality and justice?
We need to look no further than the lessons learned from the marriage between the U.S. government, transnational corporations and the corporate media. Aided by U.S. foreign policy we see similar systems of exploitation carried out on a global scale by the world’s most powerful transnational corporations. These nation state/ corporate collaborations crystallize in the form of so called free trade agreements such as NAFTA, and most recently, the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership Treaty. Such agreements hurt working conditions across all borders and augment forced, economic migration on a global scale. If we come to view wage theft as the refusal to pay a living wage, than the U.S. government is certainly guilty of its promotion across the globe. Similarly in Arizona, the race-fueled exploitation of migrant workers post SB1070 was troubling to say the least. The existing bigotry and desire to exploit labor was unleashed with unscrupulous employers leveraging 1070 as a “legitimate” tool to keep workers silent and obedient.
Such policies that promote the exploitation of the world’s working class can only be implemented and maintained by a majority working class that allows for their passage. Where is the outrage? Do you have a friend, family member or acquaintance that slaves away at a low wage job to provide for their family and at the end of the day seeks refuge in in a TV show that celebrates “the life of the rich and famous?” Can you blame them for fantasizing about such a luxurious lifestyle? The reality is that such a lifestyle is just that, a fantasy that cannot be obtained by the vast majority of the world’s population. So why do we follow such an illusion and how has that lifestyle come to mean success in our society? The corporate media and popular culture will most certainly tell us that profits and money equal success. By celebrating “the lives and culture of the rich and famous,” children in our society are taught that increasing profits is the most valuable thing that we can do- the highest form of achievement. We are taught that money and profits, equals success, pride and respect. The highly organized propaganda of the media teaches us that profits are to be worshipped and human rights; human dignity is somehow lost in the shadows. By unveiling the macro level picture- the celebration of profits in popular culture, coupled with laws and policies that favor the uber rich, it’s easy to understand why locally, certain employers feel like they can do whatever they please to increase their profits. They learn how to exploit workers from the tactics of the most lucrative transnational corporations, whose CEO’s are considered among the most respected members of our society.
Although it’s easy to over-simplify, wage theft is a complex issue. If we are serious about impacting the problem it will take a concerted deconstruction of global inequality and the powerful plutocracies that lobby and pass laws to insure class disparities. On a local scale, we need to reclaim the meaning of success and wellness within our families, within our workplace and within our communities. While the AZWRC will continue to aid workers with their individual cases of wage theft, we all need to take a serious look at the big picture. Imagining a better future, and reclaiming the meaning of the word “success” is a good first step.
The AZWRC needs money to sustain its work and while “data” may show that supporters tend to donate more with a brief, “click here” type of action, I fear that that such tactics may lead to more docility. I’m not going to highlight a sad story about wage theft in hopes you will donate money. If you can give a few bucks, that’s great, but even more important I believe, is that these discussions and issues come up at the dinner table of your holiday celebrations. Money helps, but true engagement in the issues- critical thought that leads to action even within your own household, is what we really need. The desire to serve in some capacity cannot simply come from a sad story, it’s got to come from a deep understanding that issues such as wage theft, forced migration, poverty and institutional racism are intimately connected to each and every one of us. Let us know, how do you imagine the future?
“I feel good about myself,” Maria shared her reflections with members of the Leadership Training Course as we gathered following the Treyvon Martin solidarity march on Tuesday, July 16th. Members in our 2nd week of the Leadership Course at the Arizona Worker Resource Center joined the march led by African American community leaders, speaking with their feet and calling for justice in the recent court decision that has left the community baffled in disbelief. As a group, the leadership training is in the 2nd week of the 9 week course. The training has already made a huge impact on the lives of those of us who have been in attendance. Starting the first meeting by sharing our own stories and reasons for migration, and quickly moving into examining the historical context of other groups of immigrants to the United States, we aimed to better understand discrimination universally faced by new immigrants to this country. On Tuesday, before the march, we met again and discussed how throughout history, minority groups have come together to combat racism, sexism, and unequal rights. Through examining a timeline of civil rights victories in this country alone, we were able to come to the realization that justice is a process which takes deliberate and carefully planned organizing efforts.
Upon hearing the news of the march for Treyvon Martin to take place this same evening, the group quickly voted to suspend the class, head down to the march site, and walk in solidarity with the community.
As the action was lead primarily by the African American community, our group seemed to be some of the few Latinos present that night. Numerous members of our team were approached by local Spanish news media. We were asked why as Latinos we have come to accompany the African American Community in this march. “We need each other,” one member said, “sometimes they need us, and other times we need them. We are all equal.”
Following the march, we gathered to share our reflections on the event. For some of our team, it was their first time marching in an action such as this. There was a sense of liberation for having done so, for having taken these first steps in protest against injustice. I deeply believe that it was through the teachings of the Leadership Course that collectively we had the courage and initiative to stand up and publically march for justice. It is in direct relationship to recognizing that things will not change unless we collectively come together and demand a solution that our team made the decision to suspend the class and speak instead with their feet.
In my own reflections, I recollect the first class of the Leadership Course in which we researched the ways in which immigrant groups, Asian Americans, African Americans, Europeans, historically have faced ill-treatment and negative stereotypes in decades past. In our discussions, it was common to hear the pronoun “we” easily substituted for “they” as individuals discussed the experiences of other immigrant groups. This common slip of the tongue proved just how similar perils experienced by immigrants of Latino decent today are to those experienced by Asians, Africans and Europeans historically in the past.
Maria is right, we do need each other. Through these shared experiences we learn from each other, we support each other. We must continue to organize ourselves to combat injustice. We must learn from the past but keep marching in solidarity toward the future.
-Rev. Erin Tamayo
Únete a nosotros en nuestro próximo curso de liderazgo a partir de julio 9 a 3 septiembre. Nos reuniremos todos los martes aquí en el centro durante dos horas.
Los temas incluyen:
La Organización Comunitaria
Como Hablar en Publico
El Terreno Politic de Arizona
La globalizacion y sistemas mundiales
Género y liderazgo
Racismo privilegio y poder
La campana anti-robo de sueldo
Join us at our next leadership course starting July 9th to September 3rd. We will meet every Tuesday here at the center for two hours.
The Arizona political landscape
Globalization and World Systems
Gender and Leadership
Racism, Privilege and Power
Anti-wage theft campaign
Reflections on the Worker Rights Forum
By Romelia Rillera
I am an immigrant from the Philippines, residing in Arizona since 1997, a volunteer with the Arizona Worker Rights Center and a graduate student in ASU’s Social Justice and Human Rights Masters Program. Like any other immigrant’s aspiration, it was my family’s hope to fulfill our dreams in the United States. The Wage Theft Forum in July made clear how hard it is to achieve our dreams, when employers can profit off our labor. At the forum, I was particularly struck to see workers organize and voice their experience with wage theft even though they did not have the protection of a formal union.
Reclaiming our Role Models one Testimony at a Time
By Nic de la Fuente
Recently the AZWRC participated in a coalition formed to welcome the Caravan for Peace to Arizona. Not often enough do we have the opportunity to connect the dots between the macro level policies that influence our local, micro level campaigns. The testimonies of the Caravaneros brought attention to the violence and human suffering that results from prohibition policies and economic initiatives grounded in profit generation regardless of the human cost.
Wage Theft Legislation and the Phoenix Human Relations Commission
The Human Relations Commission (HRC) recently featured the WRC and our work during their May 21st meeting. Cristina Sanidad and Ron Stone spoke to the needs of Arizona’s low income workers and their lack of recourse when their labor rights are violated. Ron is a service connected disabled vet who recently settled his wage and hour lawsuit against his former employer. He spoke from personal experience about the difficulty in getting justice and how wage theft affects workers, their families,and the local community. Together, they asked for the HRC to support a Resolution of Support for Anti-Wage Theft Legislation. The commission gave overwhelming support, and has asked for updates on the campaign during the next meeting when they will vote on the matter.
Unitarian Universalists: Moved to Combat Wage Theft
This June, the Unitarian Universalists hosted their Justice General Assembly here in Phoenix, Arizona. Because of the local Standing on the Side of Love Team’s committment to partner with us in combatting wage theft, the Worker Rights Center and our work were highlighted throughout the conference. During the opening service, UU ministers offered up $6,900 to support our local work. Nic de la Fuente spoke on a panel called “Justice GA from the Ground: A Panel Conversation with Local AZ Justice Organizers,” addressing the difference between movements and campaigns, and the necessity to link local campaigns across the country with consistent messaging that focuses on the macro level root causes of the problems we see locally.
Later in the week,Kim Bobo, the Executive Director and Founder of Interfaith Worker Justice, joined Cristina Sanidad in bringing attention to the national epidemic of wage theft, and its local manifestations and consequences. Ron Stone and Jose Reyes shared their stories of exploitation and resilience, calling the UUs to join us in fighting wage theft.
UUs from all over the country were moved to action, and have been asking how to combat wage theft in their communities. Contact us to learn more about how you can support our local work providing services to low-wage workers, engaging in critical dialgoue, challenging individual employers, and passing state wide legislation to criminalize the theft of wages.
Building Bridges and Resistance: Wage Theft Forum
By Portia Nana ‘Ama‘ Akwanze Essuman
The wage theft forum was very insightful, and I felt privileged to be a part of the process. I was very glad to see John Lasala (president of Parent Child Student Services, a leader in both African and Refugee communities and
The Worker Rights Center was recently featured on the Self Development of People’s (SDOP) website! SDOP fights oppression and poverty by funding groups that value and are committed to the empowerment and involvement of communities in work that improves their own lives. SDOP has granted the Worker Rights Center $19,250 to support the worker committee. Check out our special feature:http://gamc.pcusa.org/ministries/sdop/arizona-workers-right-center/.
Workers Celebrate Victories!
Ron, Diane, and Francisco (pictured right) worked at a small hotel in downtown Phoenix. Ron and Francisco, both desk clerks, were scheduled 72 hours per week, but had to be available 24/7, and were only compensated with $100 per week and a small room. Diane worked as the only housekeeper and was required to be on site 24/7. She was given no monetary compensation, only a room. The three filed a lawsuit with the help of Lubin and Enoch, PC for overtime and minimum wage violations, and this month collected their $100,000 settlement. You can see Ron’s testimony on youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MGVaWs63FLg
In December 2011, Hugo worked for a commercial cleaning company for seven days and never recived his first paycheck. He decided to file a wage claim with the state Department of Labor and, this month, was awarded and paid $500.
With the help of the WRC staff, Eduardo, a crane operator and independent contractor, arranged a payment plan with a contractor who owed him for 33 completed jobs; this month he received the last payment toward the $7,200 in wages he was owed. Congrats!