Booming Economy, Broken Backs: The Women Fighting Economic Abuse In Texas
“In the construction industry, people are looked at like commodities. Everyone loves a ribbon-cutting — no one wants to know about the people that got injured in building those tall, shiny buildings downtown.”
Texas possesses the dubious honor of being one of the most dangerous places in America to be a construction worker; its labor force is riddled with wage theft and misclassification, predatory inequities further compounded by the fact that more than half of construction workers across Texas are undocumented, leaving them vulnerable to abuse and with little recourse for justice.
Undocumented immigrants are hired through a vast network of subcontractors who typically pay them in cash and classify them as independent contractors, rendering them invisible — and powerless — in the workforce despite the fact that their work underpins Texas’s booming economy; the construction industry generates one out of every 20 dollars created in Texas.
On March 3rd, PRP got the chance to sit down with Travis County DA José Garza and a collection of community organizers, including Jeremy Hendricks of Laborers’ International Union of North America, Fabiola Barreto of Workers Defense, and Stephanie Gharakhanian — a PRP fellow in Garza’s office — to talk about the vital, and often overlooked, link between community safety and economic justice, and the huge strides Travis County is taking to protect its working people.
Survivors of economic abuse like wage theft are 4.5 times more likely to have also been a victim of violent crime.
To celebrate this collaborative effort — and powerful impact — between government, community organizing (and honor Women’s History Month!) we’re highlighting the work of Stephanie Gharakhanian and Fabiola Barreto.
Stephanie is currently a Public Rights Project fellow and an ADA in the Travis County DA’s office. Prior to working in the DA’s office, she was special counsel at Workers Defense Project where she represented hundreds of victims of wage theft and took part in numerous campaigns to advance the rights of working people and immigrant families in Texas and in 2018.
Stephanie emphasizes that her work is only possible because of “deep, difficult grassroots organizing.” She says the worker leaders in the community — especially women worker leaders — that have poured “time, sweat and energy into this movement for years” are the backbone of the progress they’re making.
This collaboration with the community is flanked by partnerships with Workers Defense and LiUna that deepen the impact of the work and help to foster the necessary trust with workers seeking justice.
“I view these organizations as the first responders in labor enforcement,” she says.
“They are the spaces where workers who are impacted by wage theft first turn to when they’re seeking advice and help. It takes so much courage for any worker to choose to defend their rights, to confront an employer where there’s a huge power differential. We couldn’t do this work without those partnerships. We certainly couldn’t do it successfully.”
DA Garza explained for well over a hundred years in this country, we have been told what public safety is, and that means locking up as many working-class people and people of color as we can.
“It is why we have the highest incarceration rates in the world— why for anyone who has ever spent time in our prisons and jails can see that our jails are filled, not with the wealthy, not with the middle class — but with working-class people and people of color.”
Garza says the work Stephanie is doing in the Travis County office is fundamentally challenging our collective and tightly-held perceptions of who we consider criminals and victims.
Stephanie explains that part of this reckoning around race, class, and wage theft is separating immigration status from individuals’ legal rights as working people.
“I just wanna make it really loud and clear that your rights to receive wages that you are promised are not dependent on your status. Our office is committed to investigating and prosecuting all sorts of wage theft cases, regardless of the status of the victim.”
Fabiola Barreto is the Austin policy coordinator at Workers Defense Project, a community organization for low-wage immigrant construction workers in Texas fighting for their rights to a living wage and worker protections. Currently, Fabiola is leading efforts to pass a city of Austin Wage theft ordinance.
Prior to working with Workers Defense she worked as the policy director for Anna Maria Ramos in the Texas House of Representatives.
Fabiola says there are a lot of ways that an employer can commit wage theft — failing to pay the minimum wage, failure to pay overtime, uncompensated breaks, working off the clock — the list goes on and on.
But what seems like little infractions, little power-grabs here and there put people in precarious positions — physically and financially.
“The average amount that’s stolen is $960 — that’s rent. That’s food for the week. If you’re not able to get those wages, you’re not able to pay your gas, you’re not able to take your kids to school. There are so many rippling effects that happen whenever somebody is not paid their wages.”
And nowhere is this more apparent than in central Texas where a booming construction industry boasts the promise of new jobs, a growing economy, and the infrastructure to support it.
Misclassification is the cause of Texas losing out on 45.5 million in lost unemployment tax revenue. Workers Defense has been able to recover over 2 million in stolen wages within a 20-year period.
“You’re seeing towers, you’re seeing tech companies that are building and building, but low-wage immigrant construction workers aren’t reaping any of the benefits.”
“And to make matters worse, if somebody comes up and says, ‘you know, foreman, I’m not being paid my wages, I’d like to have a discussion with you about this.’ Often the conversation goes, ‘well, you’re an undocumented immigrant. What is holding me back from calling ICE right now?’
Fabiola says it’s vital to highlight how various employers have used immigration status as a form of retaliation, to make the connection between this threat of speaking up and public safety.
And at the end of the day? “The people who know most and who know best are those that are directly impacted. The only way that we can truly combat this is by continuing to build worker power.”
“All of us collectively, are able to stand in front of you with this record of success (with much work to do ahead of us) because for the last 20 years in Austin, working people have had the courage to raise their voice, to take their fight to city hall, to take their fight to the ballot box and really to risk everything — risk their jobs, wellbeing, and in many cases retaliation.
This moment that we are in is a culmination of the fight and the struggle that working people have been at the center and forefront of for well over two decades.” — José Garza