Laura Perez-Boston served as a Dominican Volunteer from 2006-2008. She lived with the Dominican Sisters of Houston and helped establish the newly founded Houston Interfaith Worker Justice Center. She stayed on staff as Organizer and went on to serve as Executive Director from 2010 – 2015, leading the organization through a process of rebranding under the new name “Fe y Justicia Worker Center” and a chapter of unprecedented growth. Laura lives in Houston with her husband Javier Perez-Boston, stays connected with the Sisters through the Dominican Family, and enjoys practicing yoga, cooking, and escaping to the beach as often as possible. (Learn more about the Fe y Justicia Worker Center’s impact in the community from this video: https://vimeo.com/120742359)
Work should be a way of sharing our gifts and skills with our community, and our jobs should offer a dignified way to provide for the needs of our families. Especially for low-income families, we assume a job should be a pathway out of poverty, but too often that is not the case.
Over the course of eight years of accompanying low-wage immigrant workers in their struggles for dignity and justice on the job in a state with some of the poorest standards protections for workers, I learned a lot. I learned about wage theft, workplace fatalities, sexual harassment, racism, and about how these struggles are made invisible despite how intimately we are all connected to the labor of immigrant workers.
There is too much to say in this short blog post, of course, so I hope to share with you a snapshot of what transformation looks like at Fe y Justicia Worker Center. The organization transforms social service programs into a campaign, winning long-term institutional change, and it empowers immigrant workers, who otherwise might be written off as “victims,” into community leaders. From this, I want to focus on wage theft and Fe y Justicia’s campaign victory.
More than two-thirds of low-wage workers experience at least one form of wage theft: being paid less than the minimum wage, not receiving earned overtime pay, or being forced to work off-the-clock. Despite fear of retaliation, brave immigrant women like Olga Castillo come forward to denounce their employers—not only to recover their own unpaid wages but also to help prevent this from happening to others.
Olga came to Fe y Justicia Worker Center in 2011 after working at a restaurant that owed her more than $3,000 in unpaid wages. As a single mom with little cushion to fall back on without the pay she was promised, Olga decided to fight back. “He [the restaurant owner] didn’t only steal my wages,” she said, “he stole my plans with my family, my ability to provide for their basic needs, my being there when they needed me.” She and other worker members voted to launch a campaign to increase accountability for employers who profit from taking advantage of vulnerable workers and stealing their pay. The collective wisdom of working families affected by the issue was that Fe y Justicia’s efforts to recover wages wasn’t enough. Even when employees won their cases, the employer simply had to pay what was originally owed and walked away to continue doing business with little or no consequence.
Olga Castillo at an Immigrants Rights Rally
So Fe y Justicia Worker Center members got organized behind their vision. They began meeting with City Council Members, leading marches and rallies, collecting petition signatures, and getting the word out with the press. In November 2013, after two years of non-stop action and many personal sacrifices, Fe y Justicia members, including Olga, won the passage of Houston’s Anti-Wage Theft Ordinance. This ordinance bars employers with a documented track record of wage theft from receiving City contracts, permits, or licenses and establishes a process for reporting wage theft within the Office of the Inspector General.
Even after winning the Wage Theft Ordinance, the Fe y Justicia Worker Center continues building community power among workers to ensure dignified and sustainable jobs for all. Olga developed her leadership skills throughout the trajectory of the campaign and now serves on Fe y Justicia’s Board of Directors. The organization continues to provide critical services such as wage recovery, safety and health trainings for construction workers, CPR, and green cleaning trainings for domestic workers. At the same time, it never looses sight of the deeper goal of building a strong resilient community that is empowered and uniquely equipped to define solutions to the challenges workers face on a daily basis. And we’re on to the next fight: for a living wage, for mandatory workers’ compensation coverage, for safety and health trainings for construction workers, and for recognition of domestic workers’ labor as ‘real’ work and an end to their historic exclusion from labor protections.
Our vision as an organization and as a movement for racial and economic justice is always beyond where our current capacity and form can carry us. Sometimes that dynamic generates exhaustion, the feeling that you constantly have to make miracles happen, fear of the unknown, or fear of change. How do we build resilience, carve out time for self-care, envision and live-out a life-long commitment to forging a better world?
This is a deeply personal question. You know how to best care for yourself. But we should keep coming back to the vision gap—the difference between where we are and what we can imagine and envision. This gap should be a sign of real freedom and hope. God forbid our vision be bound and limited to our current capacity. Instead we are invited to shift, put our creativity to work, build community and take on a new form. As Arundhati Roy put it, “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way”. Oh yes, and let’s remember to thank God that it’s not all on our own wimpy shoulders.
For that remembering, I am drawn to the Archbishop Oscar Romero Prayer, “A Step Along the Way” as well as an excerpt from the Sacred Jewish text the Talmud that strikes a chord in me as I seek to carry out a lifelong commitment to social and economic justice rooted in my faith:
Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.
On that note, check out a few ways you can get involved in promoting dignity for low-wage and immigrant workers below.
May God Creator bless you,
May God Redeemer heal you, and
May God the Holy Spirit fill you with light.
The Workers' Assembly after Winning the Wage Theft Ordinance
Suggestions for getting involved:
Step up as a responsible employer and responsible consumer:
- Take the Fair Care Pledge http://faircarepledge.com
- Diner’s Guide to Ethical Eating: http://rocunited.org/dinersguide
Learn about and discuss the issues
- Read “The Age of Dignity” by Ai-Jen Poo http://www.caringacrossamerica.com/book
- Resources Designed for Faith Congregations: http://www.iwj.org/resources
Contact a local organization like Fe y Justicia Worker Center to learn about their local campaigns and get involved. Find an organization near you affiliated with these highly respected national associations:
- National Domestic Workers’ Alliance: http://www.domesticworkers.org/members
- National Day Labor Organizing Network: http://ndlon.org/en/our-members
- Interfaith Worker Justice Worker Center Network: http://www.iwj.org/worker-center-network/locations
And do listen to, challenge and take care of yourself. A good read to delve a little deeper into your self-awareness around how your ministry might be affecting you is Trauma Stewardship: A Guide to Caring for Self by Caring for Others by Laura van Dernoot Lipsky. (Can be found on Amazon.)