n a construction zone near you there may be a laborer applying stucco or roofing on a new home, working on the masonry at an apartment complex, or performing some other physically demanding task in the heat of the day. In exchange for his hard work, the laborer may be paid the prevailing wage, enjoy health benefits, and be adequately equipped with proper safety gear to ensure his continued well being on the job.
Or he may be a victim of exploitative labor practices. Utah is home to several companies that exploit workers, particularly the undocumented, for financial gain.
In some known instances, companies have housed workers in inadequate living spaces, such as cramming eight people in a room for two, and charged exorbitant rental amounts from the workers.
Companies have also been accused of violating state law by threatening workers with deportation or other legal action if they talk to union representatives or complain to outsiders about the company’s practices.
The worker is rewarded for his silence with far less than minimum wages and inadequate or no safety equipment for dangerous jobs. Wages are typically paid in cash and an employer may insist the employee pay workers’ compensation or taxes, though the employer is not actually claiming the worker as an employee and most certainly isn’t including the worker in their workers’ compensation obligations.
The U.S. is home to hundreds of thousands of exploited workers across many industries.
The advantages to an employer are clear, provided the employer is able to avoid viewing the workers as human beings. Such a view, however, violates many Catholic principles, such as our belief that all people have a right to a life of dignity. We also believe that work should enhance our dignity, not destroy it, and that "the just wage is the legitimate fruit of work."
The Utah Labor Commission investigates allegations of unfair labor practices or unsafe conditions, but it can only do so much without employees who are willing to share their experiences with an investigator. The Asian Association of Utah assists international victims of labor trafficking (people who are not only maltreated by the employer, but forced through coercion, restraints, threats, or other means, to remain with the employer), but it can only help those who are aware of its services.
Utah’s Catholics have a role to play in these scenarios. As believers in the dignity of people, we must do whatever we can to ensure that any contractors we hire or any companies we buy from do not exploit their workers. We must also spread the word about worker exploitation and provide whatever information we can to help those who are being exploited out of dangerous conditions. Fortunately, we have the power of our consumer dollars and our votes to put pressure on companies and government agencies to ensure their projects are being completed or their products are manufactured with appropriately paid and protected employees. As with other issues related to Catholic social teaching, these aren’t acts we take to make us feel good, these are acts we must take as integral parts of our beliefs.
Per Catholic teaching, "the word of the Gospel is not only to be heard but is also to be observed and put into practice."
If you are being exploited by an employer or know someone who is at risk, contact the Utah Labor Commission at 801-530-6800 or online at laborcommission.utah.gov. For international victims who may be trafficking victims, contact local law enforcement or the Asian Association of Utah at 801-467-6060 or www.aau-slc.org.
Jean Hill is director of the Diocese of Salt Lake City Peace and Justice Commission.