by Kim Krisberg
Texas construction workers who’ve lost their lives on unsafe worksites may be gone, but they certainly haven’t been forgotten. Earlier this week, hundreds of Texas workers and their supporters took to the streets to demand legislators do more to stop preventable injury and death on the job. They took their demands and the stories of fallen workers all the way the halls of the state capitol.
Just two days ago, workers from every corner of the Lone Star state made their way to Austin to take part in the Day of the Fallen, a day of action to memorialize construction workers killed on the job and to call for legislative action. Construction workers, local union members, students, worker rights advocates and supporters donned T-shirts that read “Day of the Fallen: We BUILD Texas, We deserve better,” held up signs and massive protest puppets, and, led by a local high school marching band, chanted their way to the doors of the state capitol building. Many participants hailed from worker centers from around the state, such as Fe y Justicia (Faith and Justice) Worker Center of Houston, Fuerza de Valle (Forces of the Valley) of the Rio Grande Valley, the Labor Justice Committee of El Paso and the Workers Defense Project of Austin, which organized the event. (Read more about these worker centers here, here, here and here.)
“The march today is to put a stop to poor conditions and call for better wages and just treatment for construction workers,” Luis Rodriguez told me via a translator just minutes before the march took off. Rodriguez, a member of the Workers Defense Project Construction Worker Committee, lost one of his fingers in 2010 while working as a carpenter on a job site. He said the injury was due to a lack of safety preparations. His employer didn’t have workers’ compensation insurance either — in fact, Texas law doesn’t require employers to carry such insurance.
During the Day of the Fallen, protestors reminded onlookers and legislators that Texas is the deadliest state for construction workers, with the highest construction worker fatality rate in the nation. According to data from Workers Defense Project, one in five construction workers is injured on the job, only 40 percent of workers are covered via workers’ comp, more than 20 percent of construction workers report not being paid for their work, and half don’t receive overtime pay. (For more details on Texas’ abysmal construction worker record, click here.) Hours before the march, nearly 200 workers and supporters visited the offices of Texas lawmakers to advocate for better working conditions for construction workers.
In a report released last month by Workers Defense Project and titled “Build a Better Nation: A Case for Comprehensive Immigration Reform,” authors Amy Price and Cristina Tzintzún wrote about the conditions facing Texas construction workers and the poor policies that perpetuate the unsafe and unfair conditions they face:
Texas is facing a crisis in construction. …Undocumented workers have few protections, resulting in deadly, illegal working conditions that lower standards for all workers laboring in the industry. Current policy has left employers with few options other then to hire undocumented workers, forcing them to put their businesses in legal jeopardy or remain unable to compete. A healthy economy requires sensible immigration policies that encourage growth, protect workers, and allow business to compete on a level playing field.
The report found that as many as 400,000 Texas construction workers are undocumented, noting that immigrant workers are often paid less and are more likely to experience wage theft and be injured or killed on the job when compared to their U.S.-born counterparts. Exacerbating the situation, immigrant workers often fear that reporting unsafe or abusive working conditions will lead to arrest or deportation. Regardless of the legal status of workers, employers are required to abide by federal and state employment law. The report notes that “undocumented construction workers play a vital role in building Texas and the United States, yet many remain excluded from the construction industry’s formal labor market. Comprehensive immigration reform that protects the rights of workers and honest businesses can halt the ‘race to the bottom’ that now characterizes the construction industry.”
The report offers a number policy recommendations, such as policy that protects the employment rights of undocumented workers and protects them from deportation if they come forward about workplace abuses. It also calls for a pathway to citizenship that ensures industries such as construction will be able to thrive in safe and fair environments.
Back at the march, Chris Wagner, a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 520, told me he was taking to the streets to “bring light to dangerous working conditions…there’s not a lot of pressure (in Texas) on keeping jobs clean and orderly.”
“We’ve got to change the mindset of leadership to make safety a real priority,” Wagner said.
When the hundreds of marchers made their way to the steps of the Texas capitol, they were joined by state Sen. José Rodriguez of El Paso. Rodriguez, who noted that “construction workers are vital the economy of the state and the nation,” said he will again push for legislation to ensure rest breaks on the worksite and to authorize the Texas Workforce Commission to impose penalties for employers guilty of wage theft.
“You deserve better than what you’re getting from the state of Texas,” Rodriguez said.
To learn more about the experience of construction workers in Texas, visit www.workersdefense.org.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.