- Melissa Torres, Ph.D., MSW
Following record-setting hurricane Harvey, immigrant workers in Houston have become the cleanup and rebuilding labor force responding to the city’s devastation. Already a population that is highly at-risk of labor exploitation and trafficking, and vulnerable to oppressive and discriminatory practices, immigrant Latinx workers are in need of preventive education and intervention services during these recovery efforts.
Fe y Justicia Worker Center, Houston’s only organization dedicated to immigrant worker rights, has partnered with their volunteer and human trafficking researcher Melissa Torres to assess and evaluate a journaling program through the new worker promoter program, part of the organization’s post-disaster worker safety response. Vital to the response development is the convening of worker asambleas, which will include focus groups to assess for risks of violence in the form of labor abuse, exploitation, or trafficking through journaling. This study is one of nine funded nationwide which seek to strengthen already established relationships between researchers and service providers. It will serve as a pilot for a greater longitudinal study currently in development, continuing this researcher-practitioner partnership.
The special circumstance of record-setting hurricane Harvey amplified structural and established risks and vulnerabilities as it slowly flooded Houston over the last week of August, 2017. Post-disaster, immediate risks faced by workers spiked, with 64 percent of undocumented workers stating that they would not seek help for emergencies or report violations to government agencies out of fear of deportation. Fe y Justicia Worker Center has seen cases of unreported hate crimes, partially due to these fears, but also based on the perception of the worker who does not often describe their experience as such. The year 2009, when Hurricane Ike hit, was the deadliest year for Houston workers, with a disproportionate amount of deaths being Latino workers. This program helps to address the gaps in identifying and reporting labor abuse and exploitation through teaching and empowering the workers to document and think about their labor experiences through peer settings.
The project will serve as a pilot for broader research focused on the risks workers are facing in post-disaster labor as well as an assessment of preventive aims through the use of the Worker Empowerment Journals, which will complement the ongoing development of the Worker Empowerment Clinic and promotores trainings.
Quarterly worker assemblies (asambleas) that serve as reminders of safety and health topics, check ins of any labor abuses or exploitation, discussions on their Worker Empowerment Journal logs, involve participants in organizing new workshops, and grow their leadership skills will include two focus groups – one with the promotores who commit to journaling for 9 months, and one with workers who attend the asambleas but have not committed to journaling consistently. Workers will discuss their experiences with journaling and have a different topic each quarter having to do with post-disaster labor and its risks.
To our knowledge, this is the first study of its kind to assess a cognitive approach to labor risks, specifically through journaling and documenting any labor abuse and exploitation among immigrant laborers in a post-disaster setting.