Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘day laborers’

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.

Construction job sites: the silent killer of immigrant workers

Tuesday, October 3rd, 2017

The New York City Council voted unanimously on Wednesday to approve a safety bill that establishes safety protocols as a way to prevent construction worker deaths, following eight months of intensive review by lawmakers, day laborers, unions, real estate developers, and contractors.

The vote came nearly one week after two construction workers fell to their deaths hours apart in separate accidents.

That bill, Intro 1447-C, would establish safety training requirements for workers at construction sites. The legislation would require construction workers to receive at least 40 hours of safety training as specified by the Department of Buildings; allow employees to continue working while they complete the training; and develop a program that grants equal access to training for all workers, including day laborers and workers employed by certain small business contractors.

The bill also includes a required 40-hour class with the United States Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration (or OSHA). A fine of $25,000 could be charged to construction sites that don’t adhere to the safety regulations for not having trained workers.

“Too many fatalities have occurred on construction sites in this city.”

“Too many fatalities have occurred on construction sites in this city,” NYC Council Speaker of the House Melissa Mark Viverito (D) said during the council meeting Wednesday. “It has clearly become well past time to take action on ensuring the safety of our residents.”

“We are protecting every single worker,” Councilmember Carlos Menchaca (D) said at the same meeting. “The road was tough, but everyone was dedicated to that one mission … to make sure that not one more death come before us in construction sites in the richest city in the country, potentially the world, that we set an example for others. We want to change that culture today.”

The legislation, which is the third version of a bill that has been debated for eight months, couldn’t have come at a more important time. One week ago, two construction workers fell to their deaths in separate incidents across the city. One, a 43-year-old father of five originally from Ecuador, was wearing a harness, but was not clipped in, before falling from the 29th floor of a building in the Financial District. The other, a 45-year-old man, was wearing a safety harness, but wasn’t secured to the bucket lift before falling as the boom was descending. Another worker died at the same site in June.

There have been seven construction workers deaths in New York City so far this year, according to the NYC Buildings Department. In both 2016 and 2015, there were 12 deaths each year.

In a city where 26,739 new apartments are on track to becoming available this year and construction permits surged substantially in 2016 from the previous year, construction site accidents have long been a silent killer for immigrant workers. That has especially held true for Latinx and undocumented workers who may be too afraid to speak out against unsafe conditions for fear of deportation.

As the trend in worker fatality data indicates, Latinx and immigrant workers have morbidly expendable lives. As a whole, these two types of workers outpaced all other major groups for fatal work injuries across all industries. Just within the construction industry, a 2015 New York Times report found that safety measures at construction job sites were often “woefully inadequate” as determined by safety inspectors, government officials and prosecutors. Beyond that, a 2014 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) survey found that fatal work injuries were the highest among Latinx workers than any other major racial/ethnic groups. Most recently, an AFL-CIO report from April, which surveyed 2015 BLS data across all industries, found that the “Latino fatality rate was 4.0 per 100,000 workers, 18 percent higher than the national average.” Among those Latinos who died, a full 67 percent were immigrant workers.

“Construction deaths and injuries has been an issue in our communities for a very long time and, frankly, it was not being addressed.”

Advocates for immigrant construction workers are glad for Intro-1447’s passage in large part because it puts a big spotlight on immigrant construction workers in the discussion on worker safety.

“Construction deaths and injuries has been an issue in our communities for a very long time and, frankly, it was not being addressed, so we’re thankful for the passage of Intro-1447,” Manuel Castro, the executive director at the workers advocacy group New York New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NY NICE), told ThinkProgress. “We want bad employers to be held accountable. Whenever there’s a construction death, whenever there’s an injury, that justice must come to those workers.”

Castro said that there weren’t many protections in place for immigrant construction workers before Intro-1447. Workers were given a 10-hour safety training. “The reality, however, is that a lot of workers start working on the sites without the training and it isn’t until weeks, maybe months after working that they look for a training and often they don’t find a training,” Castro said.

“They’re not given the appropriate training because the trainings aren’t vetted by anyone in the state,” Castro said. “The trainers are certified, but there isn’t much regulation over this. Other industries have a lot more extensive trainings.”

Castro and other NY NICE members were among those who held a “candlelight vigil” as city council members took a vote Wednesday with electronic candles to represent construction workers who had died on the job.

“When we talk about these issues, the people most impacted tend to be immigrant workers because some of the day laborers are without status,” Murad Awawdeh, vice president of advocacy at the advocacy group New York Immigration Coalition, told ThinkProgress.

“[I]t comes down to the responsibility of the entire industry to have and implement safety practices within the workplace,” Awawdeh said. “As long as everyone is doing it, everyone will be safe. Contractors, big or small, do deviate and try to cut corners and continue to put people’s lives at risk. How can we ensure that everyone — unions to nonunions, documented and undocumented — are protected? So this is just the first step.”

Awawdeh recounted waiting outside his office for a meeting earlier this week and seeing an immigrant construction worker fall about 50 feet. He explained, “We are seeing this happen on a daily basis at this point — the guy survived, but was not attached to anything.”

The bill has provided hope for both Castro and Awawdeh that the city is taking a big step to ensure the safety of its immigrant construction workers.

“It marks the beginning of something really important in New York City,” Castro said. “The city is taking an active role in protecting immigrant workers. As a worker center that works with immigrant workers and day laborers, this is a very important step. We want to ensure more is done, but this is a critical step.”

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on September 28, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Esther Yu Hsi Lee is a reporter at ThinkProgress focusing on domestic and international migration policies. She has appeared on various television and radio shows to discuss immigration issues. Among other accolades, she was a White House Champion of Change. You can reach her at eylee@thinkprogress.org.

Wage Theft Against Immigrants Threatens All Working People

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2016

wage-theft-against-immigrants-threatens-all-working-people_blog_post_fullwidthThe United States holds sacrosanct the principle that regardless of who you are, or where you come from, your hard work will be rewarded.

For day laborers in America, at least half of whom report experiencing wage theft, this ideal rings hollow. In a country so expansive and so diverse as America, there must be mechanisms in place to ensure the principle of getting paid for the work you do is a reality for everyone.

Take my story, for example. After a hard day’s work, when I asked for my earned wages, my employer refused to pay me. He went on to call the police and falsely accused me of attempting to rob him with a knife. After a police investigation, it was clear I was a victim of extortion and false charges. However, since I didn’t have the proper documentation, I was placed in deportation proceedings, which I am still fighting to this day.

Immigrant workers like me are struggling to provide for our family, yet have to work extra to organize with other workers, and to get informed about our rights to make sure we are not being exploited or robbed of our wages. Many of us who search for work on the street corners face very difficult situations on a daily basis. Not only do we receive insults by passerby, but employers themselves often try to undercut us simply because they think that we are not organized and have no support. As we continue to organize, we have developed power as working people and have had significant victories as well.

I know firsthand the confusion, humiliation and helplessness felt by those who have been robbed or shortchanged by their employers. This can happen to anyone. Only a few months ago, we learned cafeteria staff for the U.S. Senate faced issues of wage theft, too. Their fight was very important because they are helping to create a just workplace for all of us. Such a significant victory has waves of impact that reach other parts of the country and inspire many of us to continue to struggle for justice.

The U.S. Senate cafeteria workers’ encounter with wage theft is very typical of what occurs to other working people across the country, but for day laborers and immigrants like myself, our encounters with wage theft go beyond the denial of earned wages. Because of the inherent isolation of our work, and the irregularity of our schedules and employers—with the added issue of growing xenophobia and racism directed at Latino immigrants—we are seen as easy targets for bad employers, and often experience threats of deportation or get falsely accused of wrongdoing.

Many of us have to battle every day to stop employers who want to undercut us. Most of the time we have to work and struggle to get our employers to even pay us for the hours we’ve worked. The institutional protections that we have are often limited, and sometimes it feels like they are nonexistent.

Most workplaces are not the Senate cafeteria. Day laborers throughout the country are experiencing wage theft every day. The Department of Labor and national politicians must recognize our plight and devote the necessary resources to stop this epidemic of wage theft. Though we will continue to organize and fight for justice, it is necessary for the institutions created to hold up the labor protections to benefit all workers.

This blog originally appeared in aflcio.org on November 21, 2016.  Reprinted with permission.

Jose Ucelo is a day laborer and immigrant worker.

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