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The Return of the Construction Industry Has Brought a Surge of Immigrant Worker Deaths

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The rush to keep building through the pandemic has compounded the risks for construction workers.

The recov­ery of the con­struc­tion indus­try in the Unit­ed States after the lock­downs imposed by the pan­dem­ic has been remark­able. Activ­i­ty in the indus­try, based on data on work­ers’ hours, returned since May to pre-lock­down lev­els in 34 states, and con­struc­tion spend­ing for the first six months of 2020 was 5% high­er than the same peri­od last year.

Yet the rush to keep on build­ing despite the pan­dem­ic has com­pound­ed the risks for con­struc­tion work­ers, who account for one in five work­place deaths in the Unit­ed States. The dan­gers are even high­er for non-union­ized day labor­ers, the vast major­i­ty of whom are immi­grants from Latin America.

“Sad­ly, employ­ers see us as dis­pos­able objects,” says Guadalupe Jiménez, a 48-year-old con­struc­tion work­er who emi­grat­ed from Mex­i­co to New York City four years ago. Jiménez thinks that real estate devel­op­ers are now in a hurry.

“They want to get the job done soon and they don’t care if you have pro­tec­tive equip­ment,” she says. ?“What they want is pro­duc­tion, production.”

Con­struc­tion was allowed to resume in New York City on June 8. With­in six weeks, two day labor­ers were killed (Mario Salas and Wil­son Patri­cio López Flo­res, both from Latin Amer­i­ca) in sep­a­rate inci­dents, and three were injured.

“There are peo­ple from South Amer­i­ca who come here after pawn­ing their house deeds,” says Eduar­do Red­wood, a 60-year-old Ecuado­ri­an immi­grant who arrived in the Unit­ed States two decades ago. ?“But instead of com­ing here to work to make a liv­ing, they come here to die.”

Con­struc­tion work­ers’ deaths have spiked across the Unit­ed States. In 2018, the most recent year for which fig­ures are avail­able, 1,008 work­ers were killed nation­wide?—?the high­est fig­ure since at least 2008?—?com­pared to 971 in 2017. The New York Com­mit­tee for Occu­pa­tion­al Safe­ty and Health, a non­prof­it that issues what advo­cates con­sid­er a reli­able and con­sol­i­dat­ed annu­al tal­ly of deaths in the con­struc­tion indus­try, report­ed that 22con­struc­tion work­ers died in the city in 2018, an increase of 10% com­pared to 2017.

NYCOSH also report­ed that 86% of work­ers who died on pri­vate work­sites in 2017 were non-union. If his­to­ry is any guide, many of those work­ers were pre­sum­ably undoc­u­ment­ed immigrants.

New York state sen­a­tor Jes­si­ca Ramos says that the vast major­i­ty of deaths at con­struc­tion sites in the state are of undoc­u­ment­ed immi­grants. Many of those deaths are not con­sol­i­dat­ed in a sin­gle state registry.

Salas, a 59-year-old Mex­i­can immi­grant, died in Man­hat­tan on July 16. He was killed by a sus­pend­ed plat­form in a build­ing being worked on by Edras Group, a com­pa­ny with 43 cita­tions for safe­ty code vio­la­tions in the pre­vi­ous 10 years. His death could go unac­count­ed by the New York City Depart­ment of Build­ings. The agency man­dates only that employ­ers report only work­place fatal­i­ties involv­ing vio­la­tions of the city’s con­struc­tion code on build­ing sites. Deaths that do not involve city code vio­la­tions are report­ed instead to the fed­er­al Occu­pa­tion­al Safe­ty and Health Admin­is­tra­tion (OSHA).

In 2018, employ­ers report­ed only one of the deaths in con­struc­tion sites in New York City to the Depart­ment of Build­ings. Ramos says that will prob­a­bly be Salas’ case. ?“Sta­tis­ti­cal­ly, it’s as if he had nev­er existed.”

Real estate devel­op­ers and con­trac­tors?—?the mid­dle­men that direct­ly hire day labor­ers—have resist­ed efforts to count worker‘s fatal­i­ties accu­rate­ly. ?“It has been one of the ways in which undoc­u­ment­ed work­ers’ deaths have been kept clan­des­tine,” Ramos says. 

NYCOSH reg­is­tered 58 fatal­i­ties in New York state in 2018, down from 69 in 2017. 

Still, the real death toll num­ber is like­ly high­er due to coun­ty by coun­ty vari­ables, accord­ing to Ramos, who spon­sored a bill approved in July by the state leg­is­la­ture to estab­lish a reli­able count of con­struc­tion work­ers’ fatal­i­ties in the state.

Accord­ing to the bill sum­ma­ry, only 30 of the cas­es from 2017 tal­lied in the NYCOSH report were inves­ti­gat­ed by the Occu­pa­tion­al Safe­ty and Health Admin­is­tra­tion (OSHA).

Efforts to improve account­abil­i­ty have been resist­ed by devel­op­ers and con­trac­tors, says Nadia Marin-Moli­na, co-exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Nation­al Day Labor­er Orga­niz­ing Net­work, a grass­roots group found­ed in 2001.

Even though New York City man­dat­ed since 2019 that every con­struc­tion work­er receives a 30-hour train­ing from OSHA, com­pa­nies avoid pro­vid­ing it. Life-sav­ing train­ing for day labor­ers falls to non­prof­its, Marin-Moli­na says.

The sit­u­a­tion is ?“very sim­i­lar in dif­fer­ent parts of the coun­try,” Marin-Moli­na says. ?“In terms of dan­gers to the work­ers, it is very similar.”

A life worth $10,000

Immi­grants suf­fer recur­rent wage theft and are reg­u­lar­ly forced to work with­out train­ing or basic pro­tec­tive equip­ment such as har­ness­es and gloves, says Red­wood, speak­ing at a vig­il being held for Mario Salas in Manhattan.

If they com­plain, he says, the fore­men fire them on the spot. ?“They kick out work­ers as if they were dogs,” says Redwood.

If Edras Group is found crim­i­nal­ly respon­si­ble for Salas’ death, it will pay a fine to the state not exceed­ing $10,000—a con­struc­tion work­ers’ worth.

Pre­vi­ous cas­es sug­gest that would be a large amount. Accord­ing to New York state sen­a­tor James Sanders, of the more than 400,000 work­ers’ deaths reg­is­tered nation­wide by OSHA since 1970, few­er than 80 have been pros­e­cut­ed, and only about a dozen have led to con­vic­tions. That is rough­ly one con­vic­tion for every 33,000 fatal­i­ties, with a $1,000 penal­ty on average.

A bill spon­sored by Sanders, named after Car­los Mon­cayo, an immi­grant killed in Man­hat­tan in 2015, pro­pos­es fines of up to $50,000 for felonies in con­struc­tion sites. Ver­sions of ?“Car­los’ Law” have lan­guished in the Sen­ate ever since.

Sen­a­tor Ramos sug­gests the bill has not been approved because of the cor­rupt rela­tion­ship between state offi­cials and real estate com­pa­nies, which for a long time have been ?“mak­ing polit­i­cal con­tri­bu­tions and buy­ing many of our col­leagues in government.”

Oth­er bills with tan­gi­ble ben­e­fits for con­struc­tion labor­ers have also been blocked. The SWEAT bill (short for Secur­ing Wages Earned Against Theft) passed the state leg­is­la­ture in 2019. It would allow work­ers to freeze their employer’s assets if they are cheat­ed out of their pay. Demo­c­ra­t­ic Gov­er­nor Andrew Cuo­mo vetoed it in January.

What makes con­struc­tion labor­ers’ sit­u­a­tion worse is that ?“the real estate indus­try is such a cen­ter of wealth in New York,” Marin-Moli­na says. 

Three days after Salas’ vig­il, jour­nal­ist David Siro­ta revealed that 43 of New York’s 118 bil­lion­aire fam­i­lies had donat­ed mon­ey to Cuomo’s cam­paigns and the state Demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ty com­mit­tee. Those donors includ­ed at least two real estate moguls (Alexan­der Rovt and Stephen Ross), accord­ing to New York records.

Inés Aré­va­lo, a 42-year-old elec­tri­cian who emi­grat­ed from Ecuador four years ago, has wit­nessed first-hand the dis­mal job con­di­tions for work­ers erect­ing the lux­u­ry con­do­mini­ums in Manhattan.

“I’ve seen col­leagues [have] acci­dents [because they’re] not using pro­tec­tive equip­ment,” Aré­va­lo says. ?“If they com­plain or denounce we know that they would fire them or sim­ply tell them: ?‘you are not from here, you have no rights.’”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on August 13, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Maurizio Guerrero is a journalist based in New York.


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