(Note: This is the third blog in a series on wage theft in the Denver area based on the research of a team of graduate students at the University of Denver under the direction of Rebecca Galemba, PhD and Raja Raghunath, JD. The prevoius posts can be found here and here.)
By Anne Dunlop, Guest Blogger
Day laborers often suffer from multiple vulnerabilities relating to wage theft, beyond a lack of access to legal recourse. Unpaid wages can cause someone to fall behind on rent and make it difficult to meet daily needs. These vulnerabilities are compounded by race, class, and legal immigration status. Organizations such as FRESC, Centro Humanitario, and the Mexican Consulate that serve people affected by wage theft can multiply their impact by working in strengths-based collaboration. While a number of groups we spoke with had previously collaborated to help enact wage theft legislation, greater collaboration is needed moving forward to protect workers’ rights and actually implement the law.
According to one local non-profit, “It’s hard to sometimes work outside our silos, but that’s vital to any of our issues.”
We found that many day laborers who experience wage theft first look for assistance from informal social networks, especially church groups. Historically, these organizations have served immigrant communities, helping to surmount problems associated with government social service provision and private markets. In addition, a broad coalition of both religious and secular organizations collaborated to enact the Wage Protection Act of 2014 (SB 14-005) in Colorado, which strengthens legal remedies against wage theft.
Despite enhanced legal remedies to address wage theft, day laborers seeking support face significant structural and logistical barriers. In our research, commonly mentioned barriers include lack of trust towards service-providing institutions, as well as a lack of knowledge regarding both services and rights under the law. Immigration status affects how individuals seek out services, and day laborers may fear deportation or employer retaliation. Many key organizations are also difficult for day laborers to access, as transportation is an expense and traveling across town may mean forgoing a day’s work. They also often do not know the extent of their rights or how best to advocate for themselves within the legal system.
People tend to seek help through informal community-based social support before they contact more formalized service providers, such as food banks, homeless shelters or social work agencies. In the Denver area, we found that churches alleviate some of the barriers day laborers face by fostering cultural connections and providing an informal support network. Many, though not all, day laborers are immigrants. They typically come from communities where religion is significantly embedded in social, cultural and political life.
Further, the transnational nature of religious groups provides a connection to new local communities while helping laborers maintain a connection to their home culture. People often trust their pastors over police officers or legal advocates. Through interviews, we found religious institutions certainly had a lot to offer the community. As one church leader explained, “…when you need help, you come to us, and what we have we can share with you… ‘I need help.’ We all need help. And the door is always open.”
Churches frequently help, both materially and emotionally, through informal groups and referrals. Spanish-speaking churches in particular provide great potential in encouraging those who are hesitant to use more formal service providers. However, more research is needed to understand how religious groups conceptualize and address wage theft, and how they can collaborate with other organizations working on the issue.
Collaboration among organizations exists to some extent, but greater local partnership and communication could better address service gaps. Some organizations best positioned to provide education and support directly, such as churches, were isolated from the larger network of community organizations.
We saw a strengths-based approach to collaboration as most effective, as it was successfully used in the coalition that lobbied for the Wage Protection Act. This approach leverages the unique strengths of each organization to better address issues surrounding wage theft in Denver. For example, if some organizations work together focusing on advocacy, others can focus on legal help.
When community organizations work together, their services could benefit a larger population and provide more effective services. Based on our research, we suggest Spanish-speaking churches could potentially host educational programs facilitated by other non-profits (such as “Wage Theft Awareness” or “Know Your Rights” trainings). Organizations could also collaborate with churches by providing legal counsel at the church or creating referral mechanisms. Finally, a newsletter or other form of collaborative communication may help keep groups in the loop who cannot attend meetings regarding wage theft.
Collaboration helps mitigate deficiencies caused by the limited resources community organizations have. This will create a win-win situation, as organizations will be able to focus on their own assets while coordinating with, and drawing from, the service efforts of other organizations. Ultimately, increased collaboration will allow the Denver metro area to obtain a more robust infrastructure in the fight against wage theft for this vulnerable population so that the housing boom isn’t a bust for laborers.
Anne Dunlop is an International Human Rights student at the University of Denver, with a concentration in international development. She is particularly interested in labor rights and community organizing.
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