Workplace Fairness

Menu

Skip to main content

  • print
  • decrease text sizeincrease text size
    text

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

Share this post

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.


Share this post

Davis-Bacon Is Not Racist, and We Need to Protect It

Share this post

In 1931, a Republican senator, James Davis of Pennsylvania, and a Republican congressman, Robert Bacon of New York, came together to author legislation requiring local prevailing wages on public works projects. The bill, known as Davis-Bacon, which was signed into law by President Herbert Hoover, also a Republican, aimed to fight back against the worst practices of the construction industry and ensure fair wages for those who build our nation.

 Davis-Bacon has been an undeniable success—lifting millions of working people into the middle class, strengthening public-private partnerships and guaranteeing that America’s infrastructure is built by the best-trained, highest-skilled workers in the world.

Yet today, corporate CEOs, Republicans in Congress and right-wing think tanks are attacking Davis-Bacon and the very idea of a prevailing wage. These attacks reached an absurd low in a recent piece by conservative columnist George Will who perpetuated the myth that Davis-Bacon is racist.

“As a matter of historical record, Sen. James J. Davis (R-PA), Rep. Robert L. Bacon (R-NY) and countless others supported the enactment of the Davis-Bacon Act precisely because it would give protection to all workers, regardless of race or ethnicity,” rebutted Sean McGarvey, president of North America’s Building Trades Unions, on the Huffington Post.

“The overwhelming legislative intent of the Act was clear: all construction workers, including minorities, are to be protected from abusive industry practices,” he continued. “Mandating the payment of local, ‘prevailing’ wages on federally-funded construction projects not only stabilized local wage rates and labor standards for local wage earners and local contractors, but also prevented migratory contracting practices which treated African-American workers as exploitable indentured servants.”

The discussion surrounding Davis-Bacon and race is a red herring. The real opposition to this law is being perpetrated by corporate-backed politicians—including bona fide racists like Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa)—who oppose anything that gives more money and power to working people. For decades, these same bad actors have written the economic rules to benefit the wealthiest few at our expense. King and nine Republican co-sponsors have introduced legislation to repeal Davis-Bacon, a number far smaller than the roughly 50 House Republicans who are on record supporting the law. King and his followers simply cannot fathom compensating America‘s working people fairly for the fruits of their labor. Meanwhile, after promising an announcement on Davis-Bacon in mid-April, President Donald Trump has remained silent on the issue.

So the question facing our elected officials is this: Will you continue to come together—Republicans and Democrats—to protect Davis-Bacon and expand prevailing wage laws nationwide? Or will you join those chipping away at the freedom of working men and women to earn a living wage?

We are watching.

This blog was originally published at AFLCIO.com on June 28, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Tim Schlittner is the AFL-CIO director of speechwriting and publications and co-president of Pride At Work.


Share this post

AFL-CIO Backs Dakota Access Pipeline and the “Family Supporting Jobs” It Provides

Share this post

o3ytsjwl_400x400The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) came out this week in support of the Dakota Access Pipeline, the construction of which was delayed last week by an order from the Obama administration—a decision that itself stemmed from months of protests led by the Standing Rock Sioux.

In a statement, Richard Trumka, AFL-CIO president, said, “We believe that community involvement in decisions about constructing and locating pipelines is important and necessary, particularly in sensitive situations like those involving places of significance to Native Americas.”

This week has shown a stark divide between parts of American labor and today’s social movements. Progressive unions face an uphill battle on many issues, within and outside of organized labor. (Peg Hunter/ Flickr)
This week has shown a stark divide between parts of American labor and today’s social movements. Progressive unions face an uphill battle on many issues, within and outside of organized labor. (Peg Hunter/ Flickr)

But it “is fundamentally unfair,” he added, “to hold union members’ livelihoods and their families’ financial security hostage to endless delay. The Dakota Access Pipeline is providing over 4,500 high-quality, family supporting jobs.

“(Trying) to make climate policy by attacking individual construction projects is neither effective nor fair to the workers involved. The AFL-CIO calls on the Obama Administration to allow construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline to continue.”

It’s an open secret in labor that North America’s Building Trades Unions—including many that represent pipeline workers—have an at-times dominating presence within the federation’s 56-union membership. Pipeline jobs are well-paying union construction gigs, and workers on the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) can make some $37 an hour plus benefits. As one DAPL worker and Laborers International Union member told The Des Moines Register, “You’ve got to make that money when you can make it.”

But an old blue-green mantra says, “there are no jobs on a dead planet.” The parts of organized labor that have taken that phrase to heart are far from unified around Trumka’s DAPL backing—even within the AFL-CIO. National Nurses United (NNU) has had members on the ground at Standing Rock protests and others around the country have participated in a national day of action.

“Nurses understand the need for quality jobs while also taking strong action to address the climate crisis and respecting the sovereign rights of First Nation people,” said RoseAnn DeMoro, NNU’s executive director and a national vice president of the AFL-CIO.

In response to the federation’s endorsement, DeMoro cited the work of economist Robert Pollin, who found that spending on renewable energy creates approximately three times as many jobs as the same spending on maintaining the fossil fuel sector.

NNU isn’t alone. As protests swelled this month, the Communications Workers of America (CWA) released a statement in support of the Standing Rock Sioux, stating that “CWA stands with all working people as they struggle for dignity, respect and justice in the workplace and in their communities.”

Unions like the Amalgamated Transit Union and the United Electrical Workers have each issued similar statements supporting protests against the pipeline, and calling on the Obama administration to step in and block the project permanently.

For those who follow labor and the environment, however, the above unions might be familiar names. Many were vocal advocates for a stronger climate deal in Paris, and sent members to COP21 at the end of last year. They were also those most vehemently opposed to the Keystone XL pipeline, and all supported Bernie Sanders’ primary campaign against Hillary Clinton. While friendly to progressives, these unions have tended to have a relatively limited impact on bigger unions, like the American Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

According to Sean Sweeney, though, this small group of unions might now be gaining strength. “Progressive unions are becoming a more coherent force,” he told In These Times.

Sweeney helped found a project called Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, which works with unions around the world on climate change and the transition away from fossil fuels, including the National Education Association and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 32BJ in the United States. He also runs the International Program for Labor, Climate and the Environment at City University of New York’s Murphy Institute.

“It could be said that it’s just the same old gang making the same old noise, but for health unions and transport unions to go up against the building trades and their powerful message and equally powerful determination to win … that was a bit of a cultural shift in the labor movement,” he said, referencing the fights against the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines. “That suggests that it’s going to continue.”

Sweeney mentioned, too, that it wasn’t until much later in the fight around Keystone XL that even progressive unions came out against it. “A lot of these unions,” he added, “know a lot more about energy and pollution and climate change than they did before.”

Between Trumka’s DAPL endorsement and the Fraternal Order of Police’s endorsement of Donald Trump for president, this week has shown a stark divide between parts of American labor and today’s social movements. Progressive unions face an uphill battle on many issues, within and outside of organized labor. The question now—on the Dakota Access Pipeline—is whether today’s “Keystone moment” can break new ground in the jobs versus environment debate.

This blog originally appeared at InTheseTimes.org on September, 13, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Kate Aronoff is a writing fellow at In These Times covering the 2016 election and the politics of climate change. Follow her on Twitter @katearonoff

Share this post

Workers Cheer Living Wage Victory in Austin

Share this post

Barbara DohertyConstruction workers and others in the Austin, Texas, area are celebrating a coalition victory this week after Travis County commissioners approved a first-ever economic development policy that includes a living wage requirement.

The policy requires contractors asking for tax incentives to move into the county to pay all employees at least $11 per hour. It’s a significant improvement over the prevailing construction hourly wage of $7.50.

On the same day the county provision passed, a subcommittee of the Austin City Council passed a similar policy, which will come to the full council in the coming months. As reported in the Austin American-Statesman, both the city and county have been criticized about generous tax incentives offered in recent years to major companies such as Apple and Marriott.

Along with faith-based and student organizations, the Texas Building and Construction Trades Council, the Laborers (LIUNA), the Electrical Workers (IBEW), AFSCME Local 1624, Education Austin (AFT) and Texas State Employees Union (TSEU)/CWA Local 6186 participated in the yearlong campaign spearheaded by the Austin-based Workers Defense Project (WDP). The 1,000-member WDP has worked for 10 years on wage theft and other workers’ rights issues.

Austin Interfaith and United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) were among others that supported the campaign.

“Really, what this means is construction workers are starting to have a say in their working conditions and their pay,” WDP organizer Greg Casar told a celebratory crowd after the county commissioners voted.

This post was originally posted on November 30, 2012 at AFL-CIO NOW. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Barbara Doherty: My dad drove a laundry delivery truck in San Francisco and I came to appreciate unions sitting in the waiting room at the Teamsters vision center there. More than 30 years ago, I joined the international SEIU publications staff (under the union’s legendary, feisty president, George Hardy). Living in California, Massachusetts and Washington, D.C., over the years, I have contributed countless news and feature articles, as well as editing, to the publications and websites of unions in the public and private sectors and the construction trades.


Share this post

Follow this Blog

Subscribe via RSS Subscribe via RSS

Or, enter your address to follow via email:

Recent Posts

Forbes Best of the Web, Summer 2004
A Forbes "Best of the Web" Blog

Archives

  • Tracking image for JustAnswer widget
  • Find an Employment Lawyer

  • Support Workplace Fairness

 
 

Find an Employment Attorney

The Workplace Fairness Attorney Directory features lawyers from across the United States who primarily represent workers in employment cases. Please note that Workplace Fairness does not operate a lawyer referral service and does not provide legal advice, and that Workplace Fairness is not responsible for any advice that you receive from anyone, attorney or non-attorney, you may contact from this site.