November 18 was declared a National Day of Action Against Wage Theft, and Interfaith Worker Justice organized events across the country to focus attention on this increasing injustice. Houston Interfaith Worker Justice (HIWJ) gathered a group of supporters for a ride on a Justice Bus, to take their protest to businesses where employers have denied workers the compensation which they have earned.
The group met at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church at 9:00 a.m. where they made protest posters before boarding the hired yellow school bus. Laura Boston, director of HIWJ, led the group which included clergy, service organization representatives and volunteers. On the way to each stop, the group was briefed on the bus about the details of each employer who was about to be visited.
The first stop of the morning was to call on the building owner of a commercial office property who uses Professional Janitorial Services (PJS) to clean the buildings at a complex on the North Loop 610 in Houston. The buildings at this location had been cleaned by union workers until PJS was awarded the contract about 2 years previously. PJS justified paying workers at this site the rate of other major janitorial companies in Houston only by firing some of the workers. Workers who take time off to have a child are denied the right to return to work. Now the workers currently cleaning the buildings are expected to complete all tasks previously accomplished by more workers, and are paid for only 4 hours per night. They are not paid extra for working holidays and receive no benefits. This is an example of a situation where a building owner is ultimately responsible for victims of wage theft who work in other industries besides construction.
The volunteers from the Justice Bus asked to speak to the building manager to alert him to the wage theft which the cleaning company was committing, but were told that he was not on the property at this time. After leaving a signed letter for the building owner and conducting a protest on the public sidewalk outside of the building, the group boarded the bus for their next stop.
The Justice Bus visited three other businesses that day, one of which was a restaurant called El Aragan. The owner of this restaurant, Maria del Consuelo Acosta, also owns several mobile taqueria trucks, and owes four former employees a total of $10,191.50 for wages and overtime earned working at these mobile trucks. Two of these former employees met the Worker Justice group and explained how they were required to work very long hours not only without overtime pay, but sometimes even without pay at the minimum wage if business was slow. They were not granted breaks or access to a bathroom during their long shifts which often lasted 14 hours. After speaking with the former employees, the group visited the restaurant hoping to speak with Ms. Acosta. As the bus pulled up in front of the restaurant, Ms. Acosta was seen fleeing the area in a shiny black truck which still sported dealer license plates. While most of the group conducted a protest outside of the restaurant, a few representatives went inside to leave a letter for Ms. Acosta and to ask when she would return. Soon she did return, but pulled her truck to a loading zone behind the restaurant and remained inside the truck while talking on a cell phone. A short time later her husband arrived and insisted that the group leave.
The National Day of Action event in Houston focused on wage theft in restaurant and janitorial services, but the same types of injustices are also found far too often in the Houston area construction industry as well.
The Houston Interfaith Worker Justice Center provides help to low wage workers in the Houston area by educating them about their rights in the workplace, helping them file complaints with government agencies, and putting them in touch with attorneys and other agencies who can assist them. They are also an advocate along with area churches and synagogues to improve working conditions and other benefits for low-wage workers.