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Labor Day Push for Labor Law Enforcement in Texas

PHOTO: Protestors at Zuzhi Restaurant Bar in McAllen claim owners owe wages to former employees (7/11/2012). Photo credit: Fuerza del Valle Workers Center
PHOTO: Protestors at Zuzhi Restaurant Bar in McAllen claim owners owe wages to former employees (7/11/2012). Photo credit: Fuerza del Valle Workers Center
September 3, 2012

McALLEN, Texas - Whether documented or undocumented, immigrant workers are a significant factor in the Texas economy, and they are protected by state and federal labor laws. This Labor Day marks a renewed push by worker advocates to educate immigrant workers about their rights and to reverse longstanding patterns of labor violations.

In the Rio Grande Valley, a workers' center called Fuerza del Valle - the Forces of the Valley - has been holding protests in front of businesses thought to repeatedly short-change or misclassify workers, says organizer Hector Guzman Lopez.

"It's this old attitude of 'I can treat people however I want because I have the capital to open up businesses.' And here at the border, since we have a large immigrant population coming and going, we see this a bit more than other areas."

Although violations are still rampant, Lopez says, construction, restaurant and hotel workers are fast learning that they are not powerless when their employers don't pay them their full wages. Fuerza del Valle holds weekly "Know Your Rights" clinics, and intervenes on behalf of workers who feel they've been cheated.

U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, speaking last week to reporters at a LatinoWire webinar news conference about the current state of the Latino worker, said the Obama administration has almost doubled the number of labor-law investigators. However, she has to rely heavily on local advocates like Forces of the Valley to monitor abuses, she says.

"There's no way that I can send an investigator to every business in this country, but with the help of the community, and with advocates out there telling me where these violations are occurring, that will help us save our resources."

Secretary Solis says last year her department collected more back wages than any other year in history. Still, she says she'd like to see Congress fund more enforcement resources.

Lopez says all Texans should care about wage theft, not only for the sake of immigrant workers and their families, but also because whole communities suffer when workers are cheated.

"This is money denied from our local economies. And it affects the business community too - ethical business people - because it's not fair. Their competition has an unfair advantage over them by not respecting the law."

He wants lawmakers to strengthen wage-theft penalties and protections on state-funded construction sites. Meanwhile, his group is working to press local-level law enforcement to respond to violations of existing regulations.

The entire Solis webinar may be viewed at

Peter Malof, Public News Service - TX