Organization seeks to help immigrants earn fair pay

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Editor’s Note: Portions of interviews in this story were translated from Spanish. Felix Jimenez, an immigrant from Vera Cruz, Mexico, worked for an Austin roofing company for one year without receiving any pay. He and his wife, Brenda, sought the help of the Workers Defense Project to negotiate with the company to get earnings. Within a year, Jimenez obtained his wages, and he and his wife began working to help other families. “There are many times that we need to pay rent and pay bills, but there is no money to pay with,” Jimenez said. “It affects us because we can’t sleep without thinking, ‘How are we going to pay so we can live?’” The Workers Defense Project, a local organization that advocates for workers for fair employment, and St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church hosted a dinner Thursday to support immigrant families during the holiday season. Wage theft — not being paid the legal minimum wage or being paid less than promised — has increased over the last decade, said Cristina Tzintzun, the director of the Workers Defense Project. She said the cases the organization gets are mostly from construction workers but also come from the restaurant and landscaping industries. Tzintzun said the organization helps recover wages by negotiating with the employers and taking legal and community action to resolve a case. “Our long-term goal is not to get their wages back but give them the tools to advocate for themselves,” Tzintzun said. “We give them training that will increase their earning potential at work, that will give them better jobs. We also work on the weak laws that exist to ensure workers have more tools to better defend themselves.” St. Andrew’s Rev. Jim Rigby said his congregation has worked with the organization for the past two years. His church is currently collecting Christmas gifts for the families’ children. Although, in the past, community members asked for gaming systems or other expensive gifts, families from the organization ask for more common items such as socks. He said working with the families was a rewarding experience. “These families are working really hard to try to turn things around, but they have a really hard life,” Rigby said. “So it’s very rewarding to respond to that sincere effort.” American culture is often defined by possessions, Rigby said. He said although these families are experiencing physical poverty, our society experiences spiritual poverty because people don’t like to share what they have with the world. “I think an organization like the Workers Defense Project gives us an opportunity to move past that,” Rigby said. “By feeding people physically, we are fed spiritually.”