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Interfaith center helps immigrant workers

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Monday, September 6, 2010

By David Eck

CATHEDRAL DEANERY — From the back of a massive former factory in a decaying neighborhood of Cincinnati, Don Sherman and Dan Moore fight for the rights of workers.

They run the Cincinnati Interfaith Workers’ Center — a lifeline for immigrants and other low earners who are easy targets for everything from wage theft to racial profiling. The center teaches workers how to improve safety on the job and helps them recover wages that they earned but were never paid. It also strives to raise awareness of immigrant rights.

Dan Moore
Dan Moore, an organizer at the Cincinnati Interfaith Workers’ Center, looks at computer photos with members of the center of his July trip to Arizona to protest a new law that some say unfairly profiles immigrants. From left are Mamadou Diop, Erik Rodriguez, Moore and Jose Lopez. (CT/David Eck)

A main focus for the center, formed in 2005, is wage theft, a practice in which companies refuse to pay their workers. Laborers, mostly immigrants and minorities, routinely come to the center with stories of how they weren’t paid for their work. The problem is prevalent in the construction industry when contractors underbid jobs, leaving no money for the crews, Sherman said.

“The law is pretty clear. If you work for somebody, you get paid. If they do work for someone and don’t get paid, the law does protect them in some sense,” he said. “They’re very easy prey for unscrupulous employers. Usually they’re desperate for work. They have families so they’re willing to work for wages that many workers wouldn’t consider.”

Because many workers are immigrants, unethical companies may feel the workers have no recourse. The center uses attorneys and public pressure to get the immigrants their pay.

Manuel Perez became active with the center about three years ago. He was first introduced to the organization after an employer refused to pay him and his brother.

“They helped me and my brother both see how we could get the money back,” Perez said through an interpreter. “They always look for how they can help. If they can’t help you, they look for who can.”

When Perez’s brother returned to their native Guatemala, the center helped get the brother’s final and vacation pay. The center also helped Luis Castillo get a lawyer to help him recover wages. The case is ongoing, Castillo said through the interpreter.

In one study more than 50 percent of the workers surveyed in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City said they experienced wage theft. When center officials speak at churches or other groups locally and ask about wage theft, “almost everyone would raise their hand,” Sherman said.

With a “shoestring” budget, the center is funded by grants from foundations, individual donations and member dues. Unions and churches provide support, too, Moore said. The group also receives in-kind contributions like graphic design and translation services. There are also volunteers. The center receives funding from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development’s national office.

The center has also worked to improve the conditions of day laborers who lose money because of time waiting to be called into work and deductions they are forced to pay for such things as transportation to job sites.

“We’ve worked with hundreds of workers,” Sherman said. “We’ve worked with employers on other situations to get people back to work.”

The center offers safety and health workshops so workers can better protect themselves. That’s particularly important for construction workers.

“We’ve had people who have fallen off roofs and are not covered by workers’ compensation. The employer doesn’t want to cover them,” Sherman said. “When they get hurt, they’re basically just fired if they can’t do the work.”

The center has about 80 members, who guide the efforts for worker safety and health, wage theft and immigrant rights. Two sub-committees focus on immigrant rights and worker justice. Committees meet every few weeks, while the membership meets monthly.

“There’s such a big connection between worker rights and immigrants’ rights,” said Moore, an organizer for the center. “A lot of employers will take advantage of people’s immigration status as a way to kind of keep power above them and to exploit them.”

Nearly 30 people attended the August membership meeting at the center in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine. Members sat at a large conference table and tackled an agenda that included discussion of the membership dues structure, strategies to address wage theft cases, updates on discussions with local police officials relative to racial profiling and even a discussion about a Labor Day picnic.
Reflecting the majority of the membership, the meeting was conducted in Spanish. English-only speakers used translation equipment. Childcare was offered so adults could participate in the meeting.

Deportation and separation issues and effects they have on families are topics of concern at the meetings and were top concerns at the August session. The center has lost about a half-dozen members to deportation in less than a year, Sherman said.

Other areas of concern focused on hurdles immigrants face because they can’t get Social Security cards.

“It just creates a million barriers. They can’t get license plates. They can’t get insurance. They can’t get cell phones,” Moore said. “It has nothing to do with immigration or retirement. They just need that number.”

Cincinnati native Zach Fisher is a member of the center and serves on the immigrant rights sub-committee. Comprehensive immigration reform would help raise the standard of living for all low-wage workers, he said.

“It behooves all of us to bring immigrants in the light so that we can all work together,” Fisher said. “The more of us there are that are unafraid to organize and to work together, the more power we have to overcome that corporate greed and get more of the money that’s out there in the economy to our families.”

Legalizing undocumented immigrants would also inject new immigrant spending into the economy because the immigrant would feel comfortable to openly participate in mainstream society.

“We need immigrants to feel safe enough to come out of the shadows and organize for themselves and demand basic rights for themselves so that all workers can demand our own basic rights and climb out of the recession,” Fisher said. “All of our struggles are really bound up together. We’re not going to be able to win, any of us, unless we are all united.”

For people like Perez, the center is more than just a place where they can turn for help.

“It’s also important because they are not only taking care of us, the immigrants…but they are also trying to help the other communities like the African Americans and help to promote immigration in the community,” Perez said. “It’s like the family I don’t have here.”

David Eck can be reached at [email protected].


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