You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your brothers, or one of the strangers who are in your land inside your gates;
At his day you shall give him his wages, nor shall the sun go down upon it; for he is poor, and his life depends upon it; lest he cry against you to the Lord and it be a sin for you. [translation by Artscroll, adapted] -Deuteronomy 24:14-15
לֹא תַעֲשֹׁק שָׂכִיר עָנִי וְאֶבְיוֹן מֵאַחֶיךָ אוֹ מִגֵּרְךָ אֲשֶׁר בְּאַרְצְךָ בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ:
בְּיוֹמוֹ תִתֵּן שְׂכָרוֹ וְלֹא תָבוֹא עָלָיו הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ כִּי עָנִי הוּא וְאֵלָיו הוּא נֹשֵׂא אֶת נַפְשׁוֹ וְלֹא יִקְרָא עָלֶיךָ אֶל ה’ וְהָיָה בְךָ חֵטְא:
This week I started my Fellowship at T’ruah and my internship at Community Voices Heard (CVH), a member organization of low-income people. The environment is pretty diverse; brown people, white people, Jews, non jews, LGBT folks and straight folks. In other words the perfect environment for me, especially after spending the last year in a mostly privelged white environment.
My first day at work, like most jobs was an orientation that included the cool history of CVH and watching this amazing documentory, A Days Work, A Days Pay, that featured the organization. The film gave me some insight on New York’s Work Experience Program (WEP), where welfare recipents are forced to work in city-run programs for well below the prevailing wage. Common sense says that it should be illegal for the government to make poor people work for less than the legal minum wage, but it contines to happen. The WEP participants have also been deprived of basic labor rights, and must concede to what is demanded of them or lose their below minimum wage income and be kicked off welfare. This a lot of power and as one can imagine people in this system have suffered abuses and CVH continues to push to end these types of programs, that push for “work first” over education and training which result in people staying in a cycle of constant poverty. And trying to end policies where welfare recipents provide free labor around the state of New York. Further proving at least to me that the United States continues to look for slave/cheap labor and exploites the poor. If you work you should get paid a fair wage for a days work.
Watching A Days Work, A Days Pay gave me some insight into the real-life impact that a social policy can have on human beings. I was also able to comprehend the effort required for low income people to transform themselves from the victims of the system to fully empowered citizens who take control of their own lives.
I spent the rest of the week at CVH learning more about the members of the organization, calling residents of public housing to remind them about a mayoral forum coming up in the following week (New York is set to elect another mayor, Bloomberg has been in office for 12 years), sitting in on a meeting with members of CVH, a leader the DC37 Labor Union and protesting with Intern Labor Rights and CVH at the United Nations Headquarters. Trying to bring attention to the exploitation of unpaid labor/interns at the United Nations.
I have spent a great deal of time studying poverty, working on issues that affect the poor but usually from a privileged place. This week reminded me of why I have focused on these issues; to help people. And I believe when this summer is over I will not only have a better understanding of what it means to work for human rights, I will also have a better understanding of myself and grow as a human being.