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Wage Theft Forum Held in Houston

On Thursday, October 6, the Houston Interfaith Worker Justice Center (HIWJ) hosted an event to raise awareness of the wage theft crisis in America.  The Houston Wage Theft Forum featured moderator Francisco “Pancho” Arguelles Paz y Puente: former teacher, activist, author, co-founder of HIWJ, and current co-director of Colectivo Flatlander.  Attendees were invited to come and hear from a panel of workers from various industries who shared their experiences of wage theft abuse and from responsible business professionals who are struggling to remain competitive in a market where others are cheating their workers.  Dinner was provided as well as listening devices through which the entire evening was translated so that anyone who was not bilingual in English and Spanish could understand what each speaker said during the evening, which alternated between the two languages.  The purpose of the event was to encourage citizens to join the fight to make Houston, and ultimately the United States, a “zero tolerance place for wage theft  and a just and prosperous place to work”.

The interested crowd of approximately 50 attendees included business persons in their work clothes, families with their children (some of whom were doing homework), reporters, local volunteers, workers from the Justice Center and other friends of the panelists.

Francisco opened the evening stating that the purpose of the forum was part of a national campaign to fight against the epidemic of wage theft in the United States.  He recommended Kim Bobo’s book, Wage Theft in America, mentioning that it contains a great deal of “amazing and outrageous data” about this problem.  He explained that wage theft includes any instance where people work but are not paid.  Francisco compared the problem of wage theft to an iceberg: the part of the issue that most people are aware of is only a tiny part of this enormous and growing problem.

Francisco continued by explaining that wage theft comes in many different forms.  There are the obvious cases where workers are simply not paid after completing what was asked of them, but it is also considered wage theft when workers are paid below the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour or when they are not paid “time and a half” for hours worked each week over 40.  Yet another type of wage theft occurs when employers withhold money unfairly from pay, such as when workers are charged for using needed tools to do their job or when they are charged transportation fees to the job site.  Wage theft also happens when employees are misclassified as independent contractors and are therefore denied benefits and the withholding of payroll taxes.

Francisco stated that wage theft is not an isolated problem committed by only a few greedy persons, but that it is a systemic problem.  He challenged everyone to ask themselves that if we are a society that takes pride in being a democracy, then how can we possibly allow wage theft to happen, turn a blind eye to it and allow it to go unpunished?  He asked us to decide to learn about the part of the iceberg which lies under the surface and to address it.  In the video below, Francisco declares about wage theft:

“It’s bad, it’s immoral, it’s illegal and from a religious perspective it’s obscene that [an employer’s] greed will decide that [an employee’s] work is not sacred, that his or her effort is not to be honored and that the employer will take the employee’s money and keep it for himself out of greed.  That’s just wrong and outrageous.

“But when as a society, we have policies and structures and institutions that don’t give enough attention and importance to that problem, just because it happens to sectors of society that are constantly left on the margins, then as a society we have a historical responsibility for allowing that to happen. [...video continues...]

“It’s not just a case, it’s a cause.  We need to make the cause for making Houston and the United States a place where work is honored, wages are paid fully, and that we have the institutions and system that makes policy that puts the problem on the table and makes solutions.”



Francisco concluded his opening remarks by observing that the employers who commit wage theft do so because we allow it.  That when the “abusers” are made to face real penalties and consequences for their actions, that they and others like them will begin to think twice about continuing their unscrupulous ways.  For this reason, better policies must be put in place and institutions must be more diligent in enforcing existing laws.  He asserted that wage theft is a 30 billion dollar per year problem in the US, with the majority of crimes conducted in the restaurant and construction industries.  Since 2007, HIWJ has documented more than $3,200,000 in stolen wages in the Houston area alone and has been able to recover only $550,000 for the workers they represented.  The $3.2 million amount does not include the money workers additionally spent on gas, phone calls and time in their efforts to collect the money that they were owed.

After each panelist had been given a chance to make their remarks, the audience was invited to ask questions of the panel.  An insert to the program invited all attendees to get involved in the fight through actions and donations.  The evening concluded with all gaining a better understanding of what is being done to fight wage theft and how important this must become for everyone.


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