Dangerous Work-The Construction Industry and the Immigrant Worker

Construction workers march carrying empty caskets.

“No one should have to sacrifice their life for their livelihood,

because a nation built on the dignity of work must provide safe working conditions for its people.”

Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez.

At a labor rally last week, thousands marched in New York City in solidarity with construction workers, many of whom are immigrants and die every day in construction-related accidents.

According to Lucia Gomez, labor rights expert, contractors pick up undocumented workers from the streets, looking to save money and finish fast. The workers don’t have the necessary equipment or safety training, but what they do have is an urgent need to work.

“They shouldn’t sacrifice their lives for an employee who does not care about their lives,” told Gomez to Noticiero Telemundo, on December 10th, 2015.

The black caskets symbolize the undocumented workers who died while working in construction without labor union protection.

Those marching in the labor rally stood in solidarity to bring an end to workplace abuses.

According to OSHA (Occupational Health Administration)’s report, last year’s construction-related deaths came from the following accidents:

  • Falling: 349
  • Electrocutions: 74
  • Hit by objects: 73
  • Crushed to death: 12

In her interview with labor union representatives in New York, Isolde Pegero reported that these deaths are preventable and happen because contractors do not follow safety guidelines.

Stronger penalties are needed as well as more inspectors. Pegero argues that the current number of inspectors, “cannot keep up with the growing number of construction projects in New York.”

Those who marched carrying black coffins where construction workers across race, class and legal status. Together, they demand more security in their jobs, especially for undocumented workers who risk their lives every day without any type of protection for themselves or their families.

Enough is enough!” yelled Councilman Corey Johnson, a Manhattan Democrat at the Manhattan rally. “There has been enough inaction! There has been enough cutting corners! There has been enough death. The workers who have no voice are exploited every day. They are paid low wages! They have no health care! They have no retirement security! They have no training!”

Photo by Maria Hinojosa

Manhattan Borough President, Gale Brewer, emphasized the need for increasing protective regulations. “We have to raise safety standards and put in place measures that will ensure every worker on any sized building has safety equipment, proper training and proper quality supervision.”

Protecting Immigrant Workers

Cristina Tzintzun, reporting on the status of construction workers in Texas states that Texas is the state with the second largest population of undocumented people in the country, home to approximately 1.7 million undocumented immigrants.  Although they make up 6.3 percent of the state’s overall population, they account for 9 percent of the labor force and according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, pay $1.6 billion annually in state and local taxes.

Tzintzun states that despite their contributions to the Texas economy, undocumented workers in construction earn less than 2 percent of all employee compensation and are victims of wage theft abuses.

In Texas: Crisis in Construction and Employee Safety & Abuses 

Failure to be paid:  

  • More than one in five workers (22 percent) have suffered wage theft, and were denied payment for completed work.

In her report, Tzintzun states that undocumented construction workers:

  • Earn $3.12 less an hour
  • Are 18 percent less likely to receive rest breaks on work sites, leading to higher rates of heat exhaustion and heat stroke.
  • Are 2.5 times more likely to experience wage theft.
  • Most employers do not provide bilingual safety instructions. Most undocumented immigrants, are twice as likely to be injured on the job.

These conditions have dramatic impacts on working families.

Unfortunately, the construction industry is one of the least regulated in the state reports Tzintzun . Unlike other states, Texas lacks basic protections for its construction workforce, and:

  • Is the only state in the country that does not require workers’ compensation coverage or an alternative.
  • Has no statewide law mandating rest breaks for construction workers.
  • Has no program to ensure that private employers properly classify their employees.

The industry has created one of the deadliest and most unregulated construction markets in the country. As a result, both documented and undocumented workers face poverty-level wages, dangerous working conditions, and payroll fraud.

Fear of Retaliation: 

The Workers Defense Project, a group that advocates fair employment for low-income workers published a report based on a survey of 1,194 Texas construction workers. Half of the surveyed workers reported being undocumented, which the report claims makes them more likely than U.S.-born workers to be injured or die on the job.

According to the report, more than 70 percent of the undocumented workers had not received safety training and were twice as likely to face threats from their employer for reporting unsafe workplace conditions.

Young, Hispanic construction workers at higher risk-reporting from Washington 

Hispanic immigrants who work for small construction firms are among the most at risk of being injured on the job, according to NIOSH and the American Society of Safety Engineers.

Small employers are more likely to hire young workers, who are at a greater risk of injury and who may fear deportation for reporting unsafe conditions.

A Message from the United States Department of Labor 

En EspañolTiếng Việt Nam

Diverse Workforce/Limited English Proficiency Outreach

Following the National Action Summit for Latino Worker Health and Safety in 2010, OSHA has implemented a robust outreach strategy to collaborate with community- and faith-based organizations, unions, employers, and many other nonprofit organizations at the local, regional, and national levels. Since the summit, we have reached out to hundreds of organizations, conducted numerous educational programs and summits, and provided extensive compliance assistance to vulnerable worker populations. The goal of this outreach is to enhance workers’ knowledge of their workplace rights and improve their ability to exercise those rights. For information on other events in your area, contact your OSHA Diverse Workforce/Limited English Proficiency Coordinator or OSHA Compliance Assistance Specialist.

 You have the right to a safe workplace. We will keep your information confidential. We are here to help you.





Remembering fallen construction workers in Austin. Photo by Susan Van Haitsma /The Rag Blog.

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