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Workers’ rights are being abused as they rebuild in the wake of Hurricane Harvey

Tuesday, November 28th, 2017

Day laborers, many of them undocumented, are reportedly being exploited as they rebuild after Hurricane Harvey, and their health and economic well-being are are stake.

According to a report from the National Day Laborer Organizing Network and University of Illinois Chicago that surveyed 360 workers, 26 percent of workers have experienced wage theft in their post-Harvey work and 85 percent did not receive health and safety training. Sixty-one percent of workers did not have the necessary respiratory equipment to protect them from mold and chemicals, 40 percent did not have protective eyewear, and 87 percent were not informed about the risks of working in these unsafe buildings.

Workers have been exposed to mold and contamination on a regular basis, and regardless of whether workers are undocumented, they often aren’t aware of their legal protections, according to the report. To make matters worse, Texas is the only state that lets employers opt out of workers’ compensation for work injuries.

Advocates for different labor groups focusing on undocumented laborers have been speaking out on the issue of exploitation and visiting work sites to survey workers and pass out flyers with information on labor rights. There is tension between these advocates in Houston and Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R) on how the federal funds for hurricane recovery should be distributed. According to the Guardian, worker groups would prefer the money be distributed through the office of Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner (D), since the mayor is seen as a progressive ally. They’re afraid that if the money is instead distributed through the general land office run by George P. Bush, as Abbott wants, immigrant and worker groups won’t receive the aid they need.

The Associated Press interviewed workers hired by individual homeowners, subcontractors working on residential and commercial buildings, and work crews from outside of Texas about the working conditions. Martin Mares, a native of Mexico who came to Houston in 1995, told the AP that the demand for labor attracted people who don’t usually do this kind of work and don’t know how to do it safely. He gave the example of a pregnant woman working without gloves in an apartment building that had flooded.

Jose Garza, executive director of the Workers Defense Project wrote in the Guardian, “One woman contacted us when she and her crew, after spending more than 90 hours clearing out a Holiday Inn, were turned away without pay.”

Advocates for undocumented workers in Houston are also concerned about Senate Bill 4 (SB4), a Texas law that lets local law enforcement ask people they detain or arrest about their immigration status and hits local government officials with jail time and large financial penalties if they refuse to comply with federal detainer requests. The law is currently being held up in the courts, but that hasn’t completely erased fears among immigrant communities in Texas.

In addition to being exposed to mold and chemicals as well as experiencing wage theft, undocumented workers have already suffered from the devastation of the storm in unique ways due to poverty, lack of insurance, and their undocumented status. There are some 600,000 undocumented immigrants in Houston. After the hurricane, many undocumented people were afraid to use local shelters because of their immigration status or didn’t want to leave homes because they were concerned about protecting property. Although local and federal officials have tried to persuade undocumented people that they are not there to enforce immigration laws, undocumented people are still worried about the risk of seeking help.

Before the rebuilding efforts began, labor rights advocates and former officials from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) told ThinkProgress they were concerned about exploitation of workers in Texas and undocumented workers in particular, because laborers are routinely exploited and suffer major injuries. The Trump administration has already sent signals that it is not committed to labor rights. Workers groups have been critical of OSHA’s reportedly lax approach to coordinating health and safety training and the Labor Department’s ties to nonunion construction companies.

After Hurricane Katrina, workers were similarly exploited. A 2006 New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice study found that 61 percent of workers they surveyed had experienced workplace abuses such as wage theft and health and safety violations. A 2009 University of California, Berkeley study found that there were significant differences in conditions for undocumented versus documented workers.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on November 27, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Casey Quinlan is a policy reporter at ThinkProgress. She covers economic policy and civil rights issues. Her work has been published in The Establishment, The Atlantic, The Crime Report, and City Limits.

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