The Cost of Building Austin

Construction workers, mostly Latinos, are literally dying on the job.

By Lourdes C?rdenas Nov 18, 2009

November 18, 2009

Construction has become one of the most unsafe, unfair and dangerous jobs in Texas, according to a recent report released by the Workers Defense Project, which found that a construction worker was killed on the job every two and a half days in the state in 2007.

“Seventy percent of the construction workers in
Austin are immigrants that don’t speak English,” said Cristina Tzintzún, project director at the Workers Defense Project, which advocates for Austin’s low-wage workers. She added: “When the population is immigrant, the politicians don’t have the same interest to protect them as if they were U.S. citizens or white people.”

In 2007, 142 construction workers died in Texas, more than any other state in the country, according to the study “Building Austin, Building Injustice.” Total fatalities in the construction sector in the U.S. for the same year were 1,204.

The study, which was done in partnership with the University of Texas at Austin and the University of
Illinois at Chicago, showed that while the industry plays a vital role in the economy of cities like Austin, most of the jobs in the construction sector violate federal and state employment regulations. Besides that, Texas construction workers earn two to three dollars less per hour than their counterparts in other states who perform the same skilled work.

“Texas is an anti-workers rights and a pro-business state,” said Tzintzún. “Unlike any other state, in Texas we don’t have OSHA state offices; neither do we have some basic workers rights like the right to have a day off when it is 100 degrees outside.”

In addition to that, Tzintzún said, Texas is under the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals decision on Melerine v. Avondale. “We are one of the few regions in the country in which contractors can’t be cited for OSHA violations,” she said. “In any other state, contractors can be cited, but not here in Texas.”

In the case of Austin, where the construction sector is one of the top 10 industry employers in the city, the study found that 45 percent of surveyed construction workers earned poverty-level wages, and the large majority of them lacked benefits like health insurance (76 percent), pensions (81 percent), sick days (87 percent) or vacation days (77 percent).

Of the workers surveyed, one in five reported having suffered a workplace injury that required medical attention. Sixty-four percent reported lack of basic health and safety training.

“The majority of the workers have not had any kind of training in safety issues,” said Tzintzún.

According to the U.S. Hispanic Association of Contractors de Austin’s website, 18 construction workers had died in OSHA’s central Texas region in the first eight months of 2009. Of those, 15 were Latinos.

The Workers Defense Project’s report includes a series of best-practice recommendations for policymakers and employers, including enforcing health and safety regulations to prevent injuries and death on the job, as well as ensuring strict enforcement against wage theft.