The "working poor" is one description for people who hold jobs but might not have the skills or life circumstances to make enough income to get out of poverty. Their jobs frequently take place in unhealthy, even unsafe, working conditions for employers who don't want to invest money in things like keeping bathrooms clean and don't provide a human resources department to turn to with problems.
That's why the Interfaith Worker's Center (www.cworkers.org) exists. It was formed in 2005 "to organize, mobilize and educate low-wage workers on their rights," according to Don Sherman, its executive director.
"We have a national affiliation with about 17 others, but there are several hundred more worker's centers," he explains. "Many of the centers started and developed in the early '90s to the mid-'90s because of the influx of immigrant workers and the increasing difficulties workers had in organizing. Right now around 9 percent of workers in private industry are organized. That's in comparison to the '30s, when around 35 percent were organized."
The national network, Interfaith Worker Justice (www.iwj.org), tries to achieve justice in the workplace by calling on groups and people of all faith traditions to hold businesses accountable for safe and fair employment.
While most of the workers who come to the center are foreign-born, Sherman says it will help anyone who's having trouble with an employer.
For instance, they work to improve conditions for workers who rely on day labor for their income.
In day labor, a company such as Labor Works (see "All in a Day's Work," issue of June 6, 2007) sets up a contract with a business — called a third-party employer — to provide temporary, on-demand workers on a daily basis. The day labor company sets up a meeting place or "hall" where people who want to work that day will congregate. They must arrive by a certain time and sign in to indicate that they're available to work and then are sent to jobs in food processing, custodial work, construction, demolition and other fields.
Accusations of worker abuse are frequent, but there's no grievance procedure in place for most day laborers. So when workers are required to rent or buy safety equipment or have a mandatory transportation fee deducted from their pay, they have to pay the fees or they don't get to work. The Interfaith Worker's Center views those fees and other practices as illegal.
"We've been working closely with the day labor community here," Sherman says. "If you're being sent out, you should be paid. For example, if you arrive at the third-party employer and they say, 'I only needed 20 workers, and you have 30 in the van ... 10 of you have to go back.' Almost always, the day labor hall doesn't pay for those three hours or four hours, whatever time it takes to transport, to wait, etc.
"We're also working with city council on accreditation. Every hall should be accredited. That means basic standards, and that includes environmental standards, like clean bathrooms."
Sherman says he's a realist and understands that most of the people who go to a day labor hall are down on their luck. Many are homeless and have felony records. But that doesn't mean that employers ought to be able to get away with illegal business practices.
"We really don't want to see these places close down," Sherman says. "We just want to make sure that they operate justly for the workers."
So the Interfaith Worker's Center is going to show how it can be done right. It's spearheading the effort to establish a nonprofit day labor hall, which is just a few months away from opening, according to Sherman.
"We are working with the (Catholic) Archdiocese and Episcopal Archdiocese," he says. "Our goal is to have a nonprofit day labor hall that would have ... some ability for some of the workers to get social-service help, if they need it, and training to become permanent workers. If we can get somebody a job, that's our real goal."
While that project is in the works, the center is also helping workers recover unpaid wages. Sherman says he frequently sees immigrant workers and undocumented workers at the center asking for help in getting unpaid wages. The workers might clean department stores after closing or do other menial labor, but when payday comes they don't see a dime.
"We've been able to recover well over $200,000 in unpaid wages," Sherman says. "We're seeing increasingly more people coming to us with problem in the workplace. Employers are thinking they can just get away with it."
The reason for a rise in workplace abuses? Sherman points to the increased number of raids on businesses for hiring undocumented workers and the fact that third-party employers are trying to avoid the cost and responsibility for employees by using temporary workers. He acknowledges that fighting corporations, lawyers and laws that favor business over workers is "an uphill battle," but he remains undaunted.
"We're trying to take as many avenues as possible to get justice," he says. ©