JAMAICA, N.Y. (CNS) — Immigrant workers shared stories of wage theft and exploitation with college students April 16 at the first Solidarity Festival to be held on the campus of Vincentian-run St. John’s University in the Queens borough of New York.
Meena Sunuwar said she and other women from Nepal suffered health problems from exposure to hazardous chemicals in nail salons. Perla Zuniga described a fast-food restaurant manager who denied her three weeks of wages when she quit her job.
Event organizer Meghan Clark said the festival was an effort to engage students in a conversation about local and global worker justice. Clark, an assistant professor of theology and religious studies at St. John’s, teaches a class on Catholic social teaching.
Students in her class used materials and interactive programs from Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. bishops’ overseas relief and development agency, to begin research on international fair-trade practices. For their culminating projects, they worked in teams to do case studies of companies that provide fair-trade versions of popular products, including smartphones, athletic clothing, chocolate, bananas and diamonds.
Fair trade is a set of business practices voluntarily adopted by producers and buyers that are designed to advance many economic, social and environmental goals. Adherents of fair trade commit to pay a fair wage to the producer and offer opportunities for advancement, use environmentally sustainable practices and safe working conditions, build long-term trade relationships and offer public accountability.
Carina Acosta and Shivani Shah researched Brilliant Earth, a Canadian diamond company that extracts stones in an environmentally sound way, pays fair wages, provides educational opportunities for the children of mine workers, and eschews violence and extortion associated with some mines in central African countries, they said.
“Before this project, I had no idea about the condition of laborers in these industries,” Acosta said.
“I took this class because I thought it would be interesting to learn about world issues and their relationship to Catholic social teaching. I feel like my eyes have been opened and I have information to become a better consumer,” Shah told Catholic News Service.
Ryma Iftikhar and Miguel Rubin de Celis traced athletic performance clothing made in the Dominican Republic by Alta Gracia and sold on the St. John’s campus. They said Alta Gracia operated in a former Nike factory and paid its workers more than three times the wages formerly offered in the factory.
“We’re trying to spread awareness. That’s what we can do as students,” Iftikhar said. “Some students don’t know about fair trade.”
Adjacent to the research displays, students participated in a soccer tournament played with fair-trade soccer balls.
To help students understand local justice issues, Clark developed a partnership in 2013 with Don Bosco Workers, a worker-led immigrant justice organization in Port Chester that receives funds from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, the bishops’ domestic anti-poverty program.
“I was looking to create relationships with CCHD-funded groups in the area and specifically to incorporate them into my Catholic social teaching class. Since then, members of Don Bosco Workers have come each semester to share their stories and teach students about wage theft and their campaign against it,” Clark told CNS.
Zuniga, the former fast-food worker, was directed to Don Bosco Workers for help to recover her last three paychecks. She filed a claim with the state’s Department of Labor and eventually got her money, she said.
Don Bosco Workers began as a parish charitable outreach to day laborers who congregated on local street corners hoping for work with contractors and landscapers. At the end of the day, employers did not always pay the agreed-on wage, and the laborers had little recourse. Ann Heekin, a founding board member and the group’s president, said it was a challenge to evolve from a “very good charitable organization on behalf of low-income workers into a justice organization whose daily challenge is to prevent and overcome wage theft.”
Wage theft refers to the denial of wages or benefits rightfully owed an employee and can include failure to pay overtime, minimum-wage violations, illegal pay deductions, working off the clock, and not being paid at all.
Today, Don Bosco Workers runs an indoor hiring site, helps workers and contractors agree on wages and work conditions, and, through a partnership with Local 1103 of Communications Workers of America, offers training in wage and hour regulations, federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration requirements, and leadership development.
Heekin said the Don Bosco Workers’ current No Pay No Way campaign is an effort to eliminate wage theft. “Everyone suffers when there is wage theft. It diminishes the entire community. Workers spend their pay locally, so the impact on small businesses is significant,” she said.
No Pay No Way calls positive attention to responsible owners of small businesses and helps the larger community understand the impact of wage theft on everyone, Heekin said. More than 100 business owners who pledged to operate fairly now display bright window stickers. “The message is not just where the stickers are found, but where they’re absent,” Heekin said.
Sol Aramendi, an Argentine immigrant artist, collaborated with day laborers to develop a mobile-phone application to track hours worked, report wage theft and alert other workers to unscrupulous employers. “Day laborers who don’t go to worker centers can be isolated. This app helps them create a community and ties them in with a larger network,” she said.
Clark said she wanted festival participants to understand that “solidarity is everyone. Social movements, labor movements and the faith community all have to be in it together to be effective and realize my dignity is bound up with yours.”
Heekin said the interaction with the students was “empowering and dignifying” for the workers, who are able to tell their stories to interested people outside their local community. “The students have fresh eyes on the world and their hearts are filled with a great desire to serve and change the world. They’re receptive listeners. The more hearts we can touch, especially among those who will lead, the greater chance there will be justice in the world,” she said.
At the closing Mass, Vincentian Father Patrick Griffin said the good shepherd of the Gospel shows the same kind of care and concern for his sheep as good employers extend to their laborers.
“The good shepherd knows his sheep in more than a theoretical manner, as does the good employer, who knows the needs and hopes of the employees. They’re not cogs in a wheel; they’re all pulling in the same direction,” he said.
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