Last month, SEG had the opportunity to sit down with the Executive Director and Co-Founder of Fuerza Laboral, Heiny Maldonado, where she shared her experience and reason for founding the organization.
Maldonado emigrated from Colombia to the United States in 2001. Though Heiny possessed an advanced degree in Colombia, like so many other qualified immigrant workers, her experience was not recognized by U.S. employers. As a result, she was only able to find work for minimum wage in a factory. Almost immediately, she noticed vast differences in working conditions between the U.S. and Colombia. “Under the law, the workers are protected in Colombia. In America, the businesses are protected, not the workers.” Another difference she noted is that employers in Colombia must provide all of their employees with health insurance. In the United States, this is not the case.
Working in the factory, Heiny faced a number of labor violations and injustices but she never accepted her employer’s malpractices. Frustrated with the conditions that the majority immigrant factory workers had to deal with, Heiny slowly but surely became an advocate for workers rights within her community of Central Falls. While working at the factory, Heiny volunteered with the United Workers Committee, committing 20 hours a week for 2 years on top of her full-time job. Through this organization, she learned how to advocate for herself as an immigrant worker and yearned to share her research with her co-workers so they could follow suite.
The injustices that Heiny faced in the factory led her and several other immigrant workers to start Fuerza Laboral in 2006. United by their passion to address the issue of labor rights within their community, they educate and train workers in their rights, develop new community leaders, and take direct action against injustices to win concrete victories. Since the establishment of the organization, Fuerza Laboral has recovered over 2 million dollars in unpaid back wages for their members! Though this is an incredible achievement, Maldonado says they still have a lot more work to do.
In order to achieve their mission, Fuerza Laboral has a number of projects and campaigns that “provide [workers] with the tools and information they need in order to protect themselves,” says Maldonado. Most recently, the organization has focused on workers’ cooperatives as a solution to end the exploitation of immigrant workers. Workers’ cooperative businesses are owned and run by their members – the people who work in them, and they operate for the benefit of these members (US Worker). The startup costs are shared among the workers which lowers the barriers to entry for an individual. By having multiple worker-owners, there is the added benefit of diverse perspectives and expertise brought to the business. Most importantly, Fuerza Laboral sees this structure of business as “an ownership opportunity for immigrant workers.” Fuerza Laboral organizes co-ops around their members’ skill-sets, interests, and education.
Within the past five years, Fuerza Laboral has put a great deal of effort into educating their community and local government on why Rhode Island needs to be a part of the cooperative movement. “Cooperatives are 3x more successful than small business owners, “ says Maldonado. “Co-op owners are passionate about the community. They assure that their business will provide premium services because they know that if the business fails, part of the community fails–their community.” Furthermore, regardless of one person’s initial investment, everyone is paid the same wage. Collaboration is key in the survival of a co-op. Every individual has a personal investment in the company which makes for an extremely committed team.
Recently, Fuerza Laboral launched its first workers’ cooperative, Healthy Planet Cleaning Cooperative Inc. This cooperative cleaning company was founded by experienced professionals to provide environmentally conscious cleaning services to industrial, commercial, and residential customers. Fuerza Laboral also hosts the Workers’ Cooperative Academy, a free course for those interested in starting a workers’ cooperative or converting their existing business to a workers’ cooperative. The 10 week program teaches the basic principles and values of cooperatives as well as practical insights into finance, governance, marketing, business plan formulation, laws, leadership, and much more! “We want to make sure that this education is accessible to all in hopes that it will inspire people to start cooperatives of their own.”
Fuerza Laboral continues to make an impact in the lives of so many and after twelve years with the organization, Maldonado is even more passionate about the organization’s mission! “We want to continue to help people gain employment and create more business ownership opportunities for the constituents of Central Falls.”
To support Fuerza Laboral in their mission, visit their website to learn more on volunteer and sponsorship opportunities. Follow The Healthy Planet Cleaning Coop on Facebook! They are currently accepting clients. By working with Healthy Planet Cleaning Coop you’ll receive high quality service while knowing that you are supporting just, equitable, and sustainable working conditions for the community. If you are interested in starting a workers’ cooperative business or would like to converting your existing business into a cooperative, check out the Workers’ Cooperative Academy starting this Saturday, September 22 in Central Falls. Call 401-725-2700 to register and for more information.
Zara Salmon, Communications Coordinator
Zara is a 2018 graduate of Wheaton College where her majors were English and Political Science. During her junior year, she went abroad to Senegal, Italy, and China to study African migration and entrepreneurship. It was through this experience that she fell in love with the field of social entrepreneurship. As the Communications Coordinator AmeriCorps VISTA, she will be working alongside the wonderful Crystal Rosatti helping to build and maintain SEG’s relationships with universities, organizations, and other institutions across the state.